Religious freedom is one of our core national values. It is one of the dynamics of our common life that distinguishes the United States from many other nations in our global community. Our foundation of religious freedom creates the space for a vibrant, pluralistic society with a robust exchange of ideas, visions and perspectives. So it is all the more alarming that such fundamental value would become a tool for exclusion.
Over the past several years, momentum has been building among conservative Christian organizations to weaponize the concept of religious liberty, transforming it from a protective shield from government interference into a tool of discrimination and exclusion. This attempt to co-opt and distort the meaning of religious liberty has arisen in large part in response to the dismantling of discriminatory laws impacting the LGBTQ community, women and religious minorities in the U.S. It is in essence a “back-door” effort to counter recent advances in equality and fairness in our society, including access to reproductive health for women.
What is freedom of religion? As contained in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is defined this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This means that any attempt by the government to sanction or favor any one religious tradition above others is a violation of religious liberty. Over the years, the United Church of Christ General Synod has affirmed and advocated for religious liberty, together with interfaith partners including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the National Council of Churches, the Union of Reform Judaism and the Hindu American Foundation.
The hijacking of religious liberty has appeared in the form of efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which would allow houses of worship to endorse candidates, thereby becoming centers of partisan politics beholden to candidates and parties.
Flying largely under the radar screen is an initiative of conservative Christian organizations called Project Blitz. Project Blitz employs an incremental strategy for dismantling religious freedom and equality. It is a state-based effort to push ambiguous and seemingly less controversial measures to gain a foothold to pass more dangerous legislation. It threatens to distort and redefine religious liberty and lay the groundwork for upending the First Amendment. Last year Project Blitz introduced 76 bills in 26 states to chip away at the separation of church and state. They begin with legislation such as requiring the posting of “In God We Trust” in public schools to bills that would allow taxpayer-funded agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples or couples who are not Christian.
Efforts like Project Blitz undermine our common life, using religious freedom as a tool to divide rather than a foundation of connection that encourages interfaith dialogue and cooperation. As Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty notes, “Anything that might send a message to our children that you have to be Christian to be a full American is extremely problematic.” Weaponizing religious liberty tears the fabric of our common life and our common good. It is a dangerous prospect in our increasingly interconnected world.