Religious freedom has been much in the news as the Trump administration has rolled out policies providing an earthly answer to the prayers of the Christian Right. It‘s a central issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop vs Colorado Civil Rights Commission currently before the Supreme Court, and it’s no secret that the Christian Right has been busy taking their religious freedom agenda to the states.
Many of the bills on their agenda are making news; some have passed key legislative committees or whole state legislative chambers, and some have already been signed into law. But what reporters, activists, and most legislators don’t realize is that many of these bills draw from an unusual package of 20 model bills included in a report assembled by a coalition of Christian Right groups for an initiative they call “Project Blitz.”
The bills are seemingly unrelated and range widely in content—from requiring public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT); to legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people; to religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health. The model bills, the legislative strategy and the talking points reflect the theocratic vision that’s animated a meaningful portion of the Christian Right for some time. In the context of Project Blitz’s 116-page playbook, however, they also reveal a sophisticated level of coordination and strategizing that echoes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which infamously networks probusiness state legislators, drafts sample legislation, and shares legislative ideas and strategies.
Launched initially in 2015, Project Blitz brings something new and dramatic to the Christian Right as it continues to mature as a political movement—especially in light of its electoral advances in state governments over the past decade. To that end, Project Blitz has also been organizing state legislative “Prayer Caucuses” since its inception. There are currently 29 such groups, modeled on the Congressional Prayer Caucus (which comprises about a hundred sitting U.S. Senators and Representatives.) They range from very small in terms of publicly named members, to remarkably large; Iowa boasts 65 members, plus the Governor and Lt. Governor.
The principal bill mill for Project Blitz is the Chesapeake, VA- based, Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), an offshoot of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, both creations of former Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA). The Foundation operates Project Blitz in partnership with Wallbuilders, headed by Christian nationalist and Republican Party operative, David Barton, and the National Legal Foundation, on whose board Barton also sits. The Project Blitz “Steering Team” includes Lea Carawan of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, Bill Dallas of United in Purpose (a Christian Right strategic and capacity building organization), Buddy Pilgrim, a businessman who served as National Director for Faith & Religious Liberty for the 2016 presidential campaign of Ted Cruz, and of course David Barton. The Project Blitz report was published at the end of 2017 and is central to the Christian Right’s agenda in the states. Both a review of the political lessons of the past, and a preparation for the 2018 legislative season, the report was “reviewed by legislators, professors, attorneys, litigators, and religious liberty defense firms. It includes best practice Legislation, Resolutions, Talking Points, Notes, and Legal Cases.”
Lea Carawan of CPCF said at the time of the launch that Project Blitz is the lead of what they call the First Freedom Coalition, which is not a formal but a “relational coalition,” intended to increase communication and coordination between members of the “religious freedom movement.” This includes such groups as the Heritage Foundation, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Family Policy Councils, which are state-level lobbies affiliated with both Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.
RD asked Samantha Sokol of the legislative affairs unit at Americans United for Separation of Church and State to compare the 20 models bills of Project Blitz with the bills they track and she found that 71 bills introduced in 2018 (or carried over from the 2017 state legislative session) are based on the model bills or are similar in intent. Of the bills tracked by Americans United [see bill descriptions in side bar]:
- 23 fall under the National Motto Display Act
- 8 are based on, or similar in intent to the Bible Literacy Act.
- 10 are similar in intent to the First Amendment Defense Act
- 7 are similar in intent to the model bill seeking state versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)
- 4 are similar in intent to the model Child Protection Act.
- 8 are based on or similar to the Preserving Religious Freedom in School Act.
- 6 are based in part on or similar intent to the Clergy Projection Act.
- 1 are similar in intent to the heterosexual marriage resolution;
- 1 are similar to the Teacher Protection Act;
- 1 are similar to the Student Prayer Certification Act
Additional bills that Project Blitz is tracking this year that are based on, or are similar in intent to, the model bills include the Religious Freedom Day measures, and anti-gay adoption bills that are being considered by both houses in Kansas, as well as in Oklahoma. Both houses of the Georgia legislature considered this kind of bill during its legislative session this year and they’re expected to be carried over into the 2019 session. These bills don’t seem to be based on the Project Blitz model, but are similar in intent.Whatever their current legislative fate, Project Blitz clearly envisions them as part of the wave of the future, shaping Christian Right strategy and policy going forward.
By the Playbook
According to the Project Blitz playbook, the CPCF’s purpose is not to advocate for any particular bill or approach, and it acknowledges that its list is not “exhaustive.” It says their main purpose is to offer legislators the benefit of “the collective wisdom and experience of individual legislators and legal teams,” and of “groups who have or will support such legislation.” (It cedes the main antiabortion agenda to Americans United for Life, which specializes in state legislation.)
The model bills are grouped into three categories according to the degree of opposition they anticipate—1 being the least. The general plan is to begin with the less controversial measures to get legislators comfortable with the subject matter; to seek small victories first.
Bills in the first category, such as those requiring or allowing the display of “In God We Trust” in public schools and other public buildings, have been signed into law in Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee so far in 2018. Similar bills were enacted in past years in Colorado, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Virginia.*
At the teleconference to launch Project Blitz on February 16, 2016, David Barton, explained to state legislators that the IGWT bills and the bills in Category 1 are, “kinda like whack-a-mole for the other side. It’ll drive them crazy that they will have to divide their resources out in opposing this… they won’t know what to do with this and it’ll be great!”
Also included in Category 1 were resolutions declaring January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, which this year have been introduced in Michigan, Washington and New York, and passed both houses in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Generally speaking, the measures in Category 1, “Legislation Regarding Our Country’s Religious Heritage,” seek to recognize “Christian principles” in American history, including what they term “Judeo-Christian dimensions.” Although less controversial, they say that the main objections that such bills have encountered are that the “legislation is not necessary;” that legislators have “more important things” to do, and that the “sponsor of this legislation just wants to fight culture wars and divide people.”
“These types of attacks,” the playbook advises, “normally come from opposing legislators, pundits, and editorial boards, but they do not have much impact in the legislative process because they do not garner much organized outside opposition.”
Maggie Garrett, Legislative Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for one, does not take these bills lightly. She told RD that she sees these bills as “introducing government-sponsored religion into our public schools” where children are a “captive audience.”
She observed that in Arizona, for example, “They had already passed a law allowing IGWT posters to hang in the public schools. This year, they passed a law allowing the state motto, “God Enriches,” to hang on the wall alongside it. Each step might seem minor, but students will now be attending schools that send these two religious messages to students every day.”
“For students who don’t believe in God or have non-traditional concepts of a deity, this is a fundamental violation of their right of conscience,” Garrett added.
“Government should be neutral in matters of religion and certainly should not be using public schools to tell young people that there is one God and they must trust that God.”
“The message isn’t subtle” she observes, “and it suggests that if you don’t agree, you aren’t welcome and you even may be un-American. That’s a lot of pressure when you’re in elementary school.”
Measures in Category 2 are framed as “Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History.” The only one of these to be introduced in 2018 was the Proclamation Recognizing Religious Freedom Day. But while the measures in this group may be subject to the same criticisms as the first, the playbook warns that proponents may also be accused of being “divisive because they are favoring Christianity or Judaism over other religions.” Legislators shouldn’t worry too much, according to the playbook, because these arguments “often do not play well among members of the general public and are not usually detrimental in elections.”
As Barton told state legislators during the 2016 launch, the bills in Category 2 ought to be “probably pretty easy to pass,” although “[the opposition is] gonna be a lot more virulent in their attacks. A lot more mean in their attacks. They’ll talk about theocracies and Christian nation and whatever.”
But, he says, there are “educational things that can be done with proclamations… and we have proclamations for everything under the sun,” like Christian Heritage Week, and Religious Freedom Day “that you can then use to build momentum in your district. Get it out to pastors and various groups, and let them push that. And that of course, helps the way that people of faith view the state legislature and what’s happening.”
The model bills in Category 3 are framed as Religious Liberty Protection Legislation, which, they believe, may “have the greatest immediate impact on protecting religious liberties.” However, “some of them also are the most hotly contested,” and opposition “will often be well-organized and well-financed, and the arguments made are more dangerous because they will often play the same inside and outside the statehouse.”
The playbook declares that they seek “not to let those who want to run roughshod over religious liberty dictate the terms of the discussion, but to be ready to engage them with facts and figures and research that challenge their assumptions.” To this end, they claim that their model public policy resolutions “rely heavily on the research that demonstrates the deleterious physical and mental health effects of same-sex intercourse and gender identity ‘transformation’.”
Here, the authors of the Project Blitz playbook are quite open about the sectarian source of their vision, candidly describing the resolutions as seeking to “define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.”
The playbook advises, that “just because the Supreme Court has dictated that States must allow civil marriages between same-sex couples, States may still discourage that practice and encourage intimate sexual relations to take place only among a married man and woman.”
Smuggling religion into policy
Dr. David R. Brockman, a Nonresident Scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told RD he sees Project Blitz “as a covert campaign for conservative Christian dominion over law and public policy.”
“As I’ve written elsewhere,” he added, “dominionism as I understand it seeks to align law and public policy with conservative Christian beliefs.” Part of the significance of the Project Blitz playbook is that it links Christian nationalism with the antiabortion and anti-LGBTQ agenda, and finally with a broader and deeper theocratic vision called Dominionism, which has been the subject of much interest in the political, journalist and scholarly communities in recent years.
Brockman observes that the authors frame religious freedom resolutions (on heterosexual marriage, birth gender, and adoption) as intended to advance “biblical values,” although, he says “they caution policymakers not to frame legislation in biblical terms,” because “courts have frequently found such justifications ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’ and not based on ‘reason’ or ‘science.’”
“They contend,” Brockman says, “that the state has a ‘compelling’ health and safety interest in promoting heterosexual relations, maintenance of birth gender, and adoption by married heterosexuals. Whatever the merits of those health-and-safety arguments, what is critical is intent. And the authors make their dominionist intent quite clear: to ‘define public policies of the state in favor of biblical values concerning marriage and sexuality.’”
In support of this, Project Blitz offers data they suggest shows that LGBTQ people tend to be diseased, dysfunctional or both—and that they pose a threat to children and to society. After reading this section, Chip Berlet, who has written popular and peer-reviewed studies of right-wing attacks on human rights for over 40 years, told RD he sees this as “another attempt by Christian Right dominionists to reframe their obsessive loathing of the LGBTQ communities with fig leaves of manipulated scientific citations to hide their underlying bigotry.”
Indeed, in at least one instance, the alleged science being used to make a case against adoption by same sex parents, a study by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, has long been discredited, exposed as biased, and was funded primarily by the Christian Right.
Versions of the controversial First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), have been introduced in several states. One variant, the “Oklahoma Right of Conscience Act,” would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people if a business feels it might support “a specific marriage, lifestyle, or behavior.” The Rewire.News Legislative Tracker** reports that it’s based on a model bill from Americans United For Life, and suggests that the language of the bill is so broad that it “would potentially allow for discrimination against not only LGBTQ people, but interracial couples, interfaith couples, divorcees, single parents, and women seeking reproductive health services.”
These bills advance the kinds of business practices at issue in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently before the Supreme Court, in which a baker claims it is a violation of his religious conscience to prepare wedding cakes for same-sex couples. Other bills seek exemptions from medical and professional licensing standards.
The legislative climate for these bills may change in the wake of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision—no matter how it’s decided—and whether or not a “blue wave” rises in this year’s statehouse elections. But regardless of judicial and legislative outcomes in the near term, this package of legislation and legislation like it, will continue to inform and even define much of the Christian Right’s state legislative agenda for the foreseeable future. The coordination and stragegizing Project Blitz has developed is also likely to continue, and continue to change the way the Christian Right moves its agenda in the states.
*Although most of the legislators involved with Project Blitz bills are Republicans, the Florida bill’s House sponsor was Democratic Rep. Kimberly Daniels, while a bill sponsored by Louisiana Democratic State Senator Regina Barrows passed the chamber unanimously.
**Full disclosure: RD is now a project of Rewire.News.