Alison, Rebecca and Monica discuss another tool in our kit to keep religion and government separate: legislative advocacy. Alison, as our resident policy expert, guides us through the many bills that threaten church/state separation wending their ways through state legislatures this year.
Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990)
Alison Gill: Welcome to We Dissent, the podcast where four secular women attorneys discuss issues surrounding religious Liberty, the Supreme Court, and our work to keep religion and government separate. I’m Alison Gill with American Atheists.
Monica Miller: And I’m Monica Miller, the legal director and senior counsel of the American Humanist Association and one of your co-hosts .
Rebecca Markert: And I’m Rebecca Markert, the legal director at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. We are without one of our co-hosts today, Liz Cavell who’s another attorney at FFRF, she’s skipping this episode because she had a baby. Listeners may or may not know that Liz is married to another famous secular attorney, Andrew Seidel. He is formerly of FFRF and now with Americans United, they welcomed their third child and actually the baby was born the day after we taped our last episode. So she’s a superwoman <laugh> for being here the day before she gave birth.
Monica Miller: Yeah we really couldn’t believe that she was recording when she was, we were so lucky to have her ‘til the literal last minute.
Alison Gill: Well, congratulations to them, both. That’s amazing.
Monica Miller: Really happy for them.
Rebecca Markert: So our episode today is going to be on state advocacy and mostly legislative advocacy. Alison Gill is our policy wonk <laugh> and has the most experience of all of us in the legislative world. I worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years, but that was 20 years ago. So I’m really kind of out of the loop on a lot of this stuff. So Alison, why don’t you tell us a little bit about this tool that we have in our kit to keep religion and government separate?
Alison Gill: Sure. And I’ll talk about lots of different state policy issues. I’ll try not to be too negative, but it’s a little bit hard not to be negative when we’re in the middle of this type of session, where we just see so many negative bills. So before I start talking about all the things that we’re seeing across the country in terms of state legislation, I just wanna emphasize one point and that’s that the vast majority of state legislative bills in every state die every year. They do not get passed into law. So even if we say there’s like, you know, 500 bad bills, keep in mind that the 90% of them probably will die and not go anywhere. So I always like to remind people of that little fact, doesn’t mean there’s not gonna be a lot of bad bills passed, right? But like not every state’s gonna have every bad bill.
Monica Miller: It reminds me of that cartoon. That’s like, I’m just a bill sitting <laugh> on Capitol Hill and then he just dies on like the steps.
Alison Gill: I used to show that in lobbying trainings, I love that video.
Monica Miller: I took some legislative classes in law school. So that’s my limitation on this; it’s pretty much at the cartoon level.
Rebecca Markert: But it’s also very hard to get a law passed. I mean, I think that’s also the takeaway. There are so many bills that legislatures consider. So, you know, even if it’s dropped, or introduced for the first time, it may take a number of sessions before it does get passed into law.
Alison Gill: That’s exactly right. So let’s talk about some of the broader trends. First, we’re seeing an overwhelming number of negative bills in states across the country that threaten civil rights and erode the separation of religion and government. And so we’ll talk about some of those trends because bills tend to go from state to state. We see lawmakers sort of copy each other in different states rather than making up their own innovative bill. When they try to do that, they often run into a lot of problems.
Rebecca Markert: I find it very interesting because when I started doing this work, we often got a lot of complaints about legislation, particularly in election years. There’s a lot of state/church bills that happen to be dropped in election years because a lot of these politicians, a lot of these candidates really just wanna show off their religiosity. I like to say that they like to out god each other in that instance. So every year we kind of look at all of the bills that are being dropped in the election years and laugh at some of them because some of them can be really quite ridiculous. And in 2018, there was one in the state of Oklahoma, a Senate Bill 1457 was dropped that actually would transfer ownership of wildlife from the state to almighty God. And I actually, I pulled it up because I just thought I found it so funny. The bill was "all wildlife found in this state is the property of almighty God; the people of the state of Oklahoma place the authority to manage all wildlife pursuant to the Oklahoma legislature to him."
Monica Miller: Gosh, this maybe there’s maybe an animal rights angle here.
Rebecca Markert: <laugh> well–
Monica Miller: All animals fairer nature, like what’s that, you know, they’re wild.
Alison Gill: That’s interesting. There’s a whole bunch of legal issues. We actually testified against that bill, surprisingly, back then. I remember.
Rebecca Markert: Did you?
Alison Gill: It’s preposterous until it passes, which is the problem with state legislation.
Rebecca Markert: Well, this one fortunately did die in committee. And as far as I know, it wasn’t resurrected in any subsequent years, but yeah, I mean, they’re just really funny bills that get passed, but they’re also very scary bills and very alarming trends that we’ve seen as well.
Alison Gill: Yeah, exactly. This year we’re definitely seeing a wave of negative legislation, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen such a wave of negative legislation. And it’s been growing over the years, depending on different national trends. So I wanna just give a few examples of some of the national events that influence what’s happening in state legislatures. First of all, as Rebecca was saying, this is president Biden’s first term, and we’re headed into a midterm election. And much of the legislation we’re seeing is likely intended to either take advantage of partisan grievances to promote turnout or to gin up issues that the Republicans think they can run on. So for example, candidates are looking to the success of Republicans in states like Virginia last year, and in Virginia, the governor ran on a message regarding parental rights in schools.
Alison Gill: So there’s some efforts around those issues. And, and on that point, there’s been increasing public frustration over the pandemic and especially over school closures mounting. Parents, especially with small children, often feel frustrated and powerless, and the rules have kept changing. There’s been a lot of misinformation. And until recently, I would say, it’s not clear when this would all end. Maybe, I hope we’re heading out of it now. Especially important for our discussion is the impact of decisions by the US Supreme Court, as well as appointments and other things. And this is often overlooked when it comes to state policy, but the Supreme Court is one of the most important influences on state legislation that we see across the country. And I’ll, I’ll just give a couple examples. After the Obergefell decision, which legalized same sex marriage across the country, we saw a massive wave of negative legislation in states seeking to restrict or limit same sex marriage or otherwise attack LGBTQ people.
Alison Gill: After Justice Kavanaugh was appointed to the Court and even more so after Justice Barrett was appointed to the court, there was, there was massive waves of anti-abortion legislation and that has continued. We’ve just seen wave after wave over the last several years. Unfortunately, beginning of the Trump era of anti-abortion legislation. Now it’s not to say there hasn’t been anti-abortion legislation for decades because there has certainly been, but it’s been more and it’s also been more clearly unconstitutional and that’s because you know, each lawmaker, each state wants to be the first to get their case up before the Supreme Court. Right?
Monica Miller: It’s just that same race to the bottom that you were describing before, which is these preposterous, like we’re gonna do it worse. Like we’re gonna be more extreme. We’re gonna give all of our animals to God, you know, like, like we’re gonna just ban all, you know, we’re gonna, we’re going to make the bounty a hundred thousand dollars. Like, you know, I feel like exactly, like they’re just waving a flag at the Supreme Court.
Rebecca Markert: But isn’t it also because they have a federal bench that has been shaped in the last five years to benefit them. And I mean, they do really want this to go before the Supreme Court because they’re going to get the law a decision from the court in their favor.
Alison Gill: It’s both, it’s win-win right. Try to send up as many bills as you can and get away with what you can. And also if, you know, if a decision comes down and changes the law that’s even better. Right?
Monica Miller: Yeah. And all the while making the rest of us go crazy in terms of trying to, you know, figure out how you know, like defend these or challenge the laws and defend the doctors and get resources out to the people that need them. And, you know, and like, we’re just trying to do we’re so on the defensive with everything these days that their tactics are also just exhausting.
Alison Gill: Well, keep that in mind when I talk about Project Blitz in a little bit.
Monica Miller: I was gonna say Project Blitz was the first thing that came to mind when I thought about mental and emotional exhaustion.
Alison Gill:A couple other examples, after section five of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court we saw over the last decade waves of bills that limit in the states that normally, previously had to go through pre-clearance to pass legislation that restricted access. We’ve seen them pass bills that have reduced access or disadvantaged black voters. So that’s a, that’s a really clear example and it’s even worse due to the recent, more recent political gerrymandering cases, which give the states even more free reign to do what they want. And there’s also in addition to those causes, one of the causes that often gets overlooked is that there’s less legislative transparency, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a little bit better now because states use the pandemic as an excuse to close off access to the public, right? So they were making legislation in some cases, without having hearings or letting the public in hearings without having constituent meetings, it became more and more difficult to get access and you know people talk about how we can’t really impact how, how, what lawmakers do, but that’s not really the case if like lawmakers, you know, if the hearing a lot from constituents, if they’re meeting with people who are affected by bills and they talk about how that affects them, that can really make a difference, it can stop really negative bills. And without those tools, it’s a lot easier for lawmakers to pass really negative legislation because they never see or hear the people that they’re harming. So that’s another reason why it’s been problematic.
Rebecca Markert: And they’re doing that on purpose, would you say?
Alison Gill: Well, I think, I think originally they did it in response to the pandemic, right. And now it’s like, okay, well, are things going back to the way they used to be? Or they like this better because they don’t have to answer to anybody. And I also think it’s sort of amplified by the fact that we have more and more extreme gerrymandering and also media bubbles. So if the only few people that they have to respond to are their narrow slice of constituents, it just accelerates the problem.
Monica Miller: Could you elaborate on what you mean by a media bubble?
Alison Gill: Sure. Like a media bubble is like we, all of us, you know, we participate online and get certain media from different news sources, but I often don’t hear about what’s going on in like super conservative, you know, media and it’s and you know, it’s very different, the news stories are very different.
Monica Miller: Yeah. I was thinking of maybe in a more literal sense that some of these smaller communities, just as a litigator that gets, you know, interviewed by reporters, sometimes there’s just like one or two reporters that are covering the same, you know, legislation or the cases down in Mississippi or here or there. And however, it’s almost like the Bible getting interpreted, but it’s like, however, they walk out of that meeting or that, that oral argument, you know, is what gets put down. And the amount of times I had to correct the AP in Mississippi because of big mistakes that they were making in these stories early in my career, I was really shocked about that. So when we said the media bubble, I was just also thinking of what the term was that you use. I was thinking about just journalism in general and, and how the reporting of these things can change how we think about them.
Alison Gill: A lot of these bills, people don’t often understand their full impact and there’s sometimes portrayed in a way that, you know, lawmakers use certain, framing to talk about them in a way that it doesn’t actually do what the bill ultimately do. I’m gonna talk about a pretty prominent example of that. So early on in the pandemic, many states issued emergency orders to limit public gatherings and sometimes these included religious orgs in some states, not every state included religious organizations like churches after Justice Barrett was added to the Supreme Court, there were two really notable shadow docket cases that changed the outcome of these challenges.
Monica Miller: There was a string of cases, sort of starting at the beginning of the pandemic with California, Nevada, you know, passing COVID restrictions that were actually upheld by the Supreme Court before Barrett. And so we had 5-4 decisions with Roberts on the side of upholding the restrictions. And then all of a sudden we saw 5-4 the other way, and of course the change being Barrett. And so that the first case in California was, um, the Tandon versus Newsom case. And the sort of takeaway from that case was that when religions were, when a religious or church was being treated as comparable secular activity, then it wasn’t being discriminated against and the restriction applied. But when there was this switch of justices after Trump had appointed Barrett, we started to see the court take a strong stance in favor of shifting how we look at religion and giving them preferential treatment. So now they’re looking at the most like lenient secular activity to compare churches to, and said that the regulations were likely to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, meaning that they would have a constitutional right to potentially endanger the public.
Alison Gill: So even if they’re not comparable. Right. Yeah. So, yeah. So that’s the difference here, even if we’re talking about something where there’s risk, like public health risk for one activity, like the religious activity has much higher public health risk than for example, you know, going to a grocery store. Right. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
Monica Miller: Exactly. And like, and the thing that I, again, like sort of a repeat theme that we have from our other episodes is that these laws were constantly changing as we just mentioned. And in the ordinary course of things, they would be considered moot by the time they reached the Supreme Court. You know, these were not, these are not decisions on the merits. So none of these cases really are like the law that we have to apply. They were all, as Alison mentioned, sort of emergency docket, interlocutory, injunction orders, but at the same time, they all contain dicta that we would be really concerned with for our cases involving the Smith Test. Um, the idea that when a law is generally applicable and it’s neutral as to religion, then it doesn’t violate the Free Exercise Clause. We all have to abide by the same laws. But that shift that I mentioned is that now they’re flipping that on its head and saying, you know, religion basically gets a special treatment, even if the secular activity is so different, and even if it’s completely endangering the public. So even when these laws were changing and could otherwise be considered moot, the Supreme Court still bent over backwards, and these weird shadow, you know, non transparent way to favor these, churches and to favor religion,
Rebecca Markert: The COVID line of cases really just highlights the, the state of the court right now, because it really is like you mentioned, the only difference in this line of cases is who was on the court at the time that these cases were decided, and Barrett was the linchpin that shifted this law pretty drastically and carving out special exemptions and privilege to religious organizations.
Alison Gill: So after this, this had a really significant impact on states, too. So after this change, you’ve both been talking about there were more than 50 bills introduced in states last year across the country, and at least eight passed into law that exempted religious organizations from emergency orders. And many of them use the sort of, I guess I would call it false equivalency that you’ve been talking about between religious and secular organizations that very much, in fact, favors religious ones. And we see that a lot actually in Christian nationalists sort of type legislation, but this is a really good example of that type of false equivalency. Like you have to make an exception for religion, if any secular organization has any sort of exemption, even if it’s justified
Monica Miller: Yeah, exactly like a hospital or school or something, you know, something that, that needs to be operating.
Alison Gill: So in addition to these sort of pandemic related bills, they’ve been using this type of pandemic related messaging to advance very broad religious exemption bills, justifying it saying, oh, you know, we need these in order to allow churches to meet because of these unfair restrictions on churches. And really we’re seeing two types of bills, I would say that are advanced this way. One is your old standard RFRA, Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Rebecca Markert: I can just provide a little bit of background for people who don’t know what RFRA is. We obviously use the acronym pretty loosely and assume everybody knows what it stands for, but it means the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And this is a federal law that allows religious people, businesses, and corporations to violate what’s known as generally applicable laws by claiming that those laws conflict with their religious belief. So to dial it back a little bit further, this law came about as a reaction to a case from the 1990s. So back in 1990, there were two practitioners of a Native American religion, Alfred Smith and Galen Black, who were fired from their jobs in the state of Oregon as drug counselors because they ingested a hallucinogen known as peyote. It was part of the religious ceremony that took place at their native American church. And they applied for unemployment benefits after they were fired, and they were denied those benefits. So they challenged the denial claiming that religion made them take this substance. So this case is now famously known as Employment Division versus Smith. And in that case, the Supreme Court in an opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the denial, the Court ruled that the law didn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion and that the burden on their religion was only an incidental effect to this generally applicable and otherwise valid provision of the state law. So in other words, what we like to say about this case is that the Supreme Court declared that a person’s private religious belief cannot trump law that applies to everybody else. And this opinion actually stunned a lot of people. And there are many organizations that rallied to pass this bill known as RFRA in response to the Smith decision. A lot of, some of our allied organizations like the ACLU wanted to pass this law. And I think we also like to say that RFRA is a super statute, it effectively amends every other state law. And you can kind of say that it is sort of a de facto constitutional amendment. Many of our organizations believe that it’s unconstitutional and we could have a whole episode on RFRA and the constitutionality of it and maybe we should have one of those. There’s a wonderful attorney, Marci Hamilton, who’s constitutional law professor who has written a lot on this issue has done briefs for our organizations on the constitutionality of RFRA, but SCOTUS did rule that it was unconstitutional as applied to the states in a later case known as Boerne versus Flores in 1997, but it has not been declared unconstitutional on the federal level and so there are a lot of states that are passing their own state RFRA in modeling them after the federal law
Alison Gill: That’s exactly right. And I think it’s 22 states currently have state RFRAs and I should also say there’s sort of a divide there because a lot of states pass RFRAs right after the national one, like a couple decades ago. But more recently states have tried to pass RFRAs in order to explicitly undermine like for example, non-discrimination protections, labor protections, other types of general laws that they don’t like. So there’s a difference in intent over time as well. And we’ve seen the increasing negative impact of RFRA over time.
Rebecca Markert: And we saw that a few years ago in the state of Indiana. That was I think the time when a lot of people started hearing about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the state RFRA there, do you wanna elaborate a little bit on that?
Alison Gill: Sure. In Indiana, actually governor at the time, Mike Pence signed into law, a state RFRA that had, you know, very clearly been intended to undermine municipalities non-discrimination protections that had passed in the state. And he very poorly defended it basically on national television and all but admitted that it was meant to undermine non-discrimination laws. After that, it became very clear that these RFRAs were intended to undermine LGBTQ equality and so many of them did not actually move forward at all. We haven’t really seen a RFRA pass from 2015 onward until last year when we saw three pass in the year. And part of the reason for that is because of this new pandemic focus messaging. So they’re able to shift the messaging framework away from, you know, LGBT equality and put it more on, oh, churches need this because they’re being discriminated against.
Monica Miller: They point out to folks that like when RFRA was first passed, it had the support of, you know, even secular orgs and everyone, you know, the intent was different. It was to protect minority religions and you know, to, because that was the state of things, but it has recently turned into a weapon. And it’s fairly interesting that they’re using COVID as a sort of guise or Trojan Horse.
Alison Gill: I wanna be super clear about this, American Atheists has never supported RFRA and we support the repeal of all RFRA.
Rebecca Markert: Same with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Monica Miller: I think it was Americans United, right? That, that signed, they supported it.
Alison Gill: Yeah.
Rebecca Markert: ACLU and AU were on the side of that. And so actually, when all of this was going down in Indiana and suddenly there was an outcry, there was so much outrage over these laws. Like how could we allow this to happen? We at FFRF just sort of issued a statement saying, well, welcome to the fight. Like we’ve been saying this for years.
Monica Miller: It was designed at least initially to protect, even though we might end up disagreeing with it in principle, because it’s widening, you know, the girth of constitutional freedoms that don’t need to be there cause we have a Free Exercise Clause. But, insofar as the intent was to actually make it easier for minority religions to have an equal stake with Christianity. I think that is easy to see why, why it had bipartisan support.
Alison Gill: As they say, the road to hell, right? The other thing we’re seeing besides RFRA and the other type of broad new type of law is what I’m calling liability shield bills. And so these have really been pushed forward by ADF, the Alliance Defending Freedom, quote unquote, but what this bill does is it looks like it’s all about the pandemic, but they use one of the things they say in it is basically that a government entity shall not discriminate against religious organizations for the exercise of their religion, which sounds great on its face. Right. There’s, that’s actually true. However, the way they define each of those terms is positioned in such a way that basically, you know, a government entity includes anyone suing under any law in court. And discriminate includes, actually any penalty in criminal or civil law or any sort of injunction. And so basically you end up with a situation where religious organizations are immune from criminal and civil liability through these laws. And although they’re, you know, premised on the pandemic, they’re usually written in such a way that do not actually are limited in any way to the pandemic. So they apply more generally they’re added to RFRA statutes, for example. So they’re not actually limited to the pandemic, it’s just a blanket liability shield for religious organizations. So it’s incredibly dangerous and we don’t, you know, these are new so we don’t actually know the full impact of what they would do or how they would stand up in court. But they’re really seriously in danger in multiple states. And we’ve already seen more limited versions pass in some states that are we, one could argue are more limited to the pandemic. Another trend we’re seeing are denial of care bills. So these are bills that allow for very broad denial of care provisions in different states. So this is when a medical provider like a doctor or a hospital does not provide care, necessary care based on their beliefs. Now often this is framed around things like abortion or contraception. But the problem with this new wave of bills is it’s actually applies much, much more broadly. It can apply to any medical service at all that they have a religious ethical or moral objection to, and it also applies to not just providers and hospitals, but also to payers, which means insurance companies and it means employers. So basically someone’s boss could say, well, I don’t wanna pay for pregnancy or I don’t wanna pay for whatever else it might be because I have an objection to that. So it’s incredibly open to abuse.
Monica Miller: Well, I mean, circling back to just even the doctors, I mean, what about the Hippocratic oath? It’s like, isn’t the idea that you, you know, regardless of politics, regardless of if the person is the worst person in the world, you treat them with the same level of care as another human being.
Alison Gill: Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s really, just dangerous these bills and it’s hard to sort of fathom what kind of impact they’re going to have. We’ve only seen two of these pass, one passed in Ohio and one in Arkansas last year and this year it’s unclear if we’re gonna see any move.
Rebecca Markert: And those bills in those two states, are they about abortion and contraception or are they more broad?
Alison Gill: Like I said, there any, any medical procedure that interferes with the person’s,you know, moral, ethical religious beliefs.
Rebecca Markert: So this could affect some trans kids.
Alison Gill: Oh, absolutely. That’s where they’re targeted at, but it’s LGBTQ, it’s end of life, but there’s nothing limiting it there. I mean, you could deny cancer treatment, somebody who smokes or whoever.
Monica Miller: It could be arbitrary. I mean, it gives the ability to be arbitrary. It gives the ability to be racist. It gives the ability to unbridled discretion.
Alison Gill: One thing they don’t think that some of the conservatives have realized is this allows liberal doctors to refuse to serve people that, you know, refuse to get a vaccine.
Monica Miller: Or Republicans.
Rebecca Markert: I was just gonna say, I mean, that could go the other way too, right? So you want, I mean, wasn’t there a case like this before with the transplant patient who wanted to get a liver transplant and wasn’t vaccinated.
Alison Gill: Or deny ivermectin or whatever sort of crazy pseudosciences on the right these days.
Rebecca Markert: Right. Right.
Monica Miller: I still go back to the Hippocratic oath. Not that that matters like in the grand scheme of things, but like, I don’t know, I like the rule of law. I like the idea that you apply the same role to everyone, even if they didn’t get vaccinated and they’re Republican. But if we’re in a triage situation and there are folks that can’t get a hospital bed, then I say, absolutely. You know, the person that chose to not get vaccinated should not take that seat.
Alison Gill: Part of the problem with these bills also is you don’t actually know ahead of time if your provider will deny you care because based on some objection, right? So if you can’t even research that ahead of time and a lot of these hospitals are just not upfront about it. So it’s even more dangerous. And how do you make medical decisions in that environment?
Alison Gill: So the last one I wanted to last trend I wanted mention is just, well, I guess is just Project Blitz, which is a campaign that picked up in 2017 has been ongoing for several years. That’s meant to flood states with different Christian nationalist legislation and their legislation that, you know, they have like a packet of like, I don’t know, 20 or so 25 different model bills that they try to get lawmakers in different states to move forward, including attacks on LGBTQ equality, attacks on reproductive services. And also a lot of symbolic bills, like putting In God We Trust on the walls of every classroom, requiring Bible classes in schools, declaring, you know, the Bible, the state book and having sort of declarations like that. So there’s a whole bunch of different issues and the goal was to just flood state legislatures so that they’re really difficult for advocates to stop.
Monica Miller: Yeah. And I’d say on the legislation, the litigation side, and Rebecca probably has the same observation, but we get, we get inundated with complaints from across the country. There’s an In God We Trust going up, people do not want these, there is a strong vocal, secular descent that does not want these. And we are pretty much bound right now, we can’t bring a lawsuit challenging In God We Trust.
Alison Gill: I’m so glad you mentioned that because we actually have a lawsuit challenging In God We Trust in Mississippi, but it’s a slightly different avenue.
Monica Miller: That’s right, it’s a different avenue and it’s a creative one and it’s kind of unique to that case and the facts of it, we almost brought it and I just bandwidth was, I was really, really glad you took it. But yeah, it’s, but it’s tricky because it’s a First Amendment issue, but yeah, it’s, if we’re, if we don’t have a situation where there’s monetary, free speech issue and we’re purely in, you know, the, the Establishment Clause land, there’s really no chance of bringing a successful challenge to that in like a courtroom right now.
Rebecca Markert: Well, with Project Blitz, you know, we were really worried about it back in 2017 when we learned about this effort, but I really thought at some point it kind of had died out and they like really sort of fizzled but what you’re saying now is that they’ve like resurged or did they never actually go away?
Alison Gill: They didn’t fizzle, I think lawmaker’s attentions are always drawn to the shiniest object in the room and so I think there’s been a lot of focus on their things, but there’s still out there promoting negative bills. I just heard recently about a new type of bill. They might be promoting next year, for example. So there definitely are continuing efforts and we see every year we see Bible class bills and In God We Trust bills and things like that. And actually, you know, RFRAs are on their list of bills they promote so keep that in mind too, and we’re seeing plenty of those. So I think that they’re still out there and still working, but they’re not as much in, you know as prominence as they were a few, couple years ago, if you wanna learn more about Project Blitz, probably the best place to go is blitzwatch.org, which is a sort of coalition website that looks at Project Blitz and the bills putting put forth by it.
Monica Miller: Yeah. But it’s, is it, I guess, is it a project, it’s I know it’s coordinated, but does it have an end point to it? Like, is it like cuz you know, project implies and I actually work for a group called the Non-Human Rights Project and we’ve kind of sometimes grappled with like, do we end the project like the project, it’s an ongoing thing. We like our name, but you know, is it a one off thing as Rebecca was sort of saying, or do they have a forever goal of just perpetually inundating us with religion.
Alison Gill: I think it’s a continual thing. I mean, they’ve been updating their model policy guide and so basically it’s meant to sort of push envelope further and further over time.
Monica Miller: So like Handmaid’s Tale?
Alison Gill: Well, it’s a Christian nationalist organization, so it’s to promote Christian nationalism, you know, to sort of provide this idea that America was founded as a Christian nation remains one and should remain one and therefore, you know, Christians should be prominent in schools and in government and everything should sort of be favoring in the law, their perspective. And that’s what we see a lot of religious exemptions, a lot of like, you know, In God We Trust on the walls and like, you know, highlighting that one section of the Declaration of Independence that talks about a creator, not the rest of it, just that one part.
Monica Miller: That’s so funny when we were talking about some of these frivolous bills, like the one giving God, all the animals up to God, you think of like the conservative, the Republican concept, like limited government, like don’t waste our taxpayer dollars, like to be efficient. And yet, they’re spending their time legislating, getting massive bodies using all of our taxpayer dollars and time to decide, you know, something that has zero consequence for anyone. Okay cool, now the ram is owned by the sky daddy, but like, it’s still just a ram on a field. Why did you do that? Like, that’s time you’re taking the same with these decorations, these courthouse decorations, like In God We Trust like it’s really, it’s irritating and annoying, but it doesn’t really affect our daily lives. Like it’s bothersome–
Alison Gill: I disagree with you, Monica. I think it does affect children.
Monica Miller: No, I mean it does, but like, do you see, like, I think what I’m saying is like from a republican standpoint.
Alison Gill: Doesn’t help anybody. That’s for sure. So I think, is that what you’re saying?
Monica Miller: Yeah. It’s just useless. Like it’s a decoration, you’re like from the lens of,
Alison Gill: I mean it affects especially children because they’re in these schools and non-religious children, LGBTQ children, and others that are sort constantly reminded that they are outsiders, that they are, you know, opens up to discrimination and, and harassment, unfortunately.
Monica Miller: Of course, oh yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I think the constant reminder that the nation and God are united, you know, gives the message that atheists are outsiders and not part of the same country we’re in, but from the lens of being a Republican and like, I know they want their Christianity there and their God there, but it just like, isn’t this just, I don’t know, annoying? Like if you’re a sensible person that just wants limited government, like, okay, why are like, why are these people getting elected to just pass bills that are, so pett.
Alison Gill: I think that there’s a significant faction on the right, that believes that all of society’s problems result from, well, frankly from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, not having, you know, prayer in schools, right. And so what we’re seeing are avenues to get religion and prayer into schools. And a lot of Project Blitz is focused on schools and young people for that reason. I think that they see that they’re losing the demographic war over time. And, you know, there’s just sort of a desperate scrabbling to try to influence as many young people as possible to prevent their sort of, you know, Christianity from declining.
Rebecca Markert: We definitely see that meme circulating on social media where, you know, we wouldn’t have school shootings if there was still prayer in schools and we took God of schools and now look what is happening. I’ve definitely seen that shared on my feed and I think you’re right, that that narrative is out there. And really it is also just a reaction to these changing demographics and the fact that they feel that they’re losing ground. But I do agree too, that some of these things, even though they don’t really help people and they don’t seem to make much impact on everybody’s daily life. I mean, going into a government building and seeing a huge In God We Trust is upsetting to people and in some instances threatening to people. And I think that, you know, they’re chipping away at it, I mean, with some of these bills that seem to be like non-threatening on their face, but it’s not just that it’s also, they want In God We Trust, they also want a specific Bible verse taught to your children and they want, you know, it’s just, it’s just chipping away at all of it to get their larger thing, which is to make a Christian nation and have their religious beliefs imposed on everyone.
Alison Gill: You know, one of the positive bills we’re working on in several different states is to require, it’s around denial of care. The bill basically says when someone, you know a provider would deny care because of their religious beliefs, they have to inform the consumer ahead of time and inform the department of health. They can put it up on the state’s website and people can do research and find out, okay, where can I go get the services that I need? And where are they gonna deny care? Which seems very, very rational to most people. And, you know with a lot of people, you know, moderate people, even conservative people and they’re like, well, of course that makes sense. It’s perfectly reasonable a position to take that of course. If people are gonna deny care, I mean, we don’t believe people should be allowed to deny care, right? At the same time, if they’re going to deny care, they should at least make it public, which seems like a very reasonable position. And so we’re able to persuade people in that way. You know, this is, one of these is already the law in Washington state and we’re working in other states to see if we can get those passed as well.
Monica Miller: Yeah. Yeah. That’s really good. And I think that’s exactly it it’s like finding those areas where it’s like, you know, yeah, we don’t want, you know, I think the COVID restrictions are one, like I said, like earlier where there’s, it seems more bipartisan where, um, either on the right or the wrong side of it, but just like, Hey, we all are in support of keeping our kids safe. We all support them masking or we all don’t. But like, I think that those, and then maybe that’s the wedge that we can start talking about, like the other things. But I think the well-meaning people are the ones that actually would totally support trans rights if they actually understood them better. Or, LGBT you know, like the things that they think are scary, oh, like the bathroom bill, we have to support that. Like they don’t, they don’t actually know what’s behind the bathroom bill. They don’t know the people that are behind it and when they realize that, you know, how much torture a child goes through that. I love the show "I am Jazz," I don’t know if you’ve, if you guys have seen it, but it was a, you know, just a TV show about a trans girl growing up in Florida and you watch her have the harassment and you watch how healthy she is when she has her transitioning. And I think a lot of people don’t see the human side of it and they see bills and they see fights and we have to take one side, but I’m wondering how we can bring humanity to these bills and to our side of it.
Alison Gill: I think you’re exactly right. You know, public education is really key and the framing of these things. And I think when it comes to knowledge about trans people and also knowledge about LGBT people, right? Personally, knowing someone is directly correlated to not supporting, to supporting positive legislation and not supporting negative legislation. So it’s, it’s really critical. And that’s part of it is to get more people to be aware of these issues so that there’s a greater level of support. And actually you hit upon another, a couple other trends I wanted to highlight, and these are not directly related to true state separation, but like we’ve just seen waves upon waves of attacks. First of all, anti LGBTQ bills, but specifically focusing on trans youth, either preventing them from participating in school sports or banning them from bathrooms, which is ridiculous. Both are ridiculous, but also the most dangerous one, I think is the medical bands, which purport to criminalize well, meaning doctors and parents for getting trans children basic care, which, you know, for young children that can mean things like counseling or like, you know, dressing up a certain way or using certain names. It’s not, we’re not talking about surgical intervention. Like we’re talking about basic–
Monica Miller: It’s a long process
Alison Gill: Basic therapy and that sort of thing. And maybe, at a certain point, like, you know, hormone blockers, we’re not talking about, but that is what’s being targeted. And then the other ones we’re seeing attacks on public schools increase this, this past year, whether because of voucher programs or these recent craziness around, you know, so-called critical race theory, but really these are censorship bills is what we’re seeing a lot on the other side of targeting schools. Anyway, so those are the trends I mostly wanted to highlight.
Rebecca Markert: And I think all of those do still have a state church angle to them in our organizations. We have gone and testified against some of these bills that have been in the state legislatures because they do have a religious angle to them. Some of these sponsors are kind of overt about that.
Alison Gill: That’s absolutely right.
Monica Miller: Yeah. I mean, I actually see them all kind of as church/state issues just because they are, they are the religious right. You know, trying to push their agenda as we were saying with Project Blitz. So it’s kind of part to me, they’re kind of part and parcel, even though we wouldn’t see them as a First Amendment issue.
Alison Gill: And I think I misspoke before I, you know, we do consider all of these church state issues as well, and American Atheists works on all these things and, and, you know, opposing these bills. It’s just that, I guess they’re not as core as directly religious exemptions, but you know, you, as you, as you both point out, this is, these are motivated by religious animus against people in a lot of these cases. So, I mean, how could they not be related to the work that we’re doing? I would say a couple other things people can do around state legislation to get involved in this particular issue is sign up for action alerts. All of our groups have sort of action alerts about what’s happening in states so that you can be informed and we make it super easy for you when you, you know, something’s happening in your area. And there’s something you can do to help. We’ll send you an email, you click a couple buttons and your letter, or will be sent to the right lawmaker so that they know that there’s an issue. So that can be really important. Talk with bills about what’s happening in your area with friends and family, so that they’re aware too. So talk with things that are happening and that way, you know, we can help to raise elevated awareness a little bit. If you are able to meet with your lawmakers or lobby, that can be huge. I mean, every single lawmaker in every state has a state district office. So you don’t even have to go to the capital. All of them have offices near where you live. So it’s a good way to sort of meet them and get to know them. And you can influence ’em that way as well. And, you know, in a lot of places, especially in the states, these are not full time politicians, they’re your average local person who happened to get elected. They might, you know, work as a teacher in the next town over or whatever, and you can connect with them on a very human level and explain why things are and why they should care about what atheists think.
Monica Miller: Yeah. And actually going back to that point and Project Blitz and these, you know, under God, or, you know, putting In God We Trust everywhere and those kinds of things. What I tell folks when we, you know, can’t, when we’re not gonna be able to bring a lawsuit, is that doesn’t mean don’t create a paper trail, like you should be complaining. Like when one of those things is about to go up in your community, make a petition, you know, have everyone send emails saying we don’t want, this is alienates. We know we don’t believe we’re a nation under God. We think this is unconstitutional. You know, just cuz we can’t bring a legal lawsuit doesn’t mean you go, you know, folks on the ground shouldn’t be vocal and challenging it and making noise so that when we do have, you know, maybe the ability to bring a challenge, we can point to this evidence of an objection.
Rebecca Markert: So I was a former congressional staffer, um, worked for a Senator in Washington, DC. And I’m often told that people don’t want to engage with their senators or their representatives because you know, they don’t listen anyway and they already have preconceived notions about how they’re going to vote and what they’re going to do. And I always come back by saying, well actually, no, like you should call your legislators or meet with them or show up at their town hall meetings because they really do pay attention. Even if you disagree with them, they’re keeping track of the calls. They, you know, report to the member of Congress or to the member of the state legislature, what calls are coming in and what people are saying and I do really think that that it’s important. And to Monica’s point, I think it’s also really important to register when you disagree with somebody so that they know, and they’re not in that bubble where like, well, all my constituents have called and told me that I’m right. We really want to dissent, it’s patriotic, it’s an American value and we should all be doing that.
Alison Gill: And we dissent
Rebecca Markert: Exactly.
Rebecca Markert: We Dissent is a joint production of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists and the American Humanist Association. It is hosted by Liz Cavell, Alison Gill, Monica Miller, and me, Rebecca Markert. Other production support comes from James Phetteplace and Greta Martens. Audio engineering is provided by Audio For The Arts in Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks for listening.
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