The proportion of conservative Christians is declining in the U.S., yet right-wing lawmakers are flipping out. Legislatures everywhere are passing religious-minded bills likely to be struck down after costly legal battles, merely to prove their allegiance to the Christian right. From Bibles to vouchers to school prayer, here’s how they’re signaling their religious stripes, even as the electorate scurries away.
1. The Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments has long been the fighting symbol of those who try to join state and religion—perhaps because its Old Testament roots makes it slightly more inclusive. The most public example is Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was evicted from the bench in 2003 for refusing to remove his Ten Commandments display from his courtroom under federal court order. (Moore was recently reelected and is currently squaring off with the federal government over gay marriage.)
But some states tried to go further than Moore. Last month the Arkansas Senate did just that, passing a bill, almost unanimously, that would allow the state to officially erect a Ten Commandments monument on government property. The bill claims the monument would be constitutional, but the funds it provides for legal defense suggest they’re not too sure about that.
By the way, don’t worry about the state elevating one faith over others. “The placement of the monument under this section shall not be construed to mean that the State of Arkansas favors any particular religion or denomination over others,” the bill states. The Arkansas House must now consider whether that’s believable or not. Given some of the other bills this Arkansas legislature has passed (see below), chances are likely they’ll love it.
Arkansas didn’t dream this up. In 2009, Oklahoma approved legislation calling for a Ten Commandments monument. The thing was built, which apparently angered the big guy downstairs: last year a man drove his car into the monument, telling authorities Satan ordered him to do it.
As Kentucky’s attempt to get the Bible into classrooms demonstrated, schools often become the arena for religious pandering. And there’s no pandering like school prayer, which is perfectly constitutional as long as the state doesn’t endorse it — which, of course, is exactly what legislators want.
The most egregious example in recent years was Alabama’s 2014 bill requiring prayer in public schools. The bill set aside 15 minutes at the beginning of each school day to read aloud the prayers that open sessions of Congress. “If Congress can open with a prayer, and the state of Alabama Legislature can, I don’t see why schools can’t,” one legislator said. (The Establishment Clause is the answer to that one.)
The bill was so ridiculous the committee had to pass it with a contested voice vote while some of the committee members were absent.
School prayer bills are often struck down, largely because they protect a right already guaranteed by the Constitution in a manner that seems to entail the state endorsement of a particular religion. In response, lawmakers have located a crafty workaround: school religious anti-discrimination laws. The bills take as their impetus cases, often anecdotal, of students being told they can’t make god the subject of assignments. The bills ostensibly would protect students’ ability to make explicitly religious material their subject matter.
Or so they claim. But critics argue the bills are simply school prayer mandates in disguise, and those who sponsor them don’t exactly dissuade anybody from that theory.
“There’s a lot of hostility or animosity towards Christianity when we know our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” one Alabama Republican said. “This is not preference to any particular religion, but students will be able to freely express their religious viewpoints in artwork and course work and then at school, if the SGA president has the microphone or the valedictorian, and they want to pray, student initiated prayer is 100 percent guaranteed by the Constitution.”
These bills have been popping up in Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and other states. For continuity’s sake, the bill’s sponsor in Alabama has previously tried to get a Ten Commandments monument erected on state grounds; in the event that his prayer bill passes and is legally challenged, which seems almost certain, Roy Moore has promised to defend it free of charge.
Another backend way to intertwine religion and schooling is to reverse the process: rather than force religion onto students, export students into religion. That’s been the path of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who’s overseen a massive voucher program, essentially privatizing—and pietizing—his state’s education system.
Many of the private schools endorsed under the program would effectively be delivering religious education (read: creationism) paid for by Louisiana taxpayer funds. This most famously includes the textbook teaching that the Loch Ness monster is a) real; b) a dinosaur; and c) co-existed with humans, thus proving the creationist math that the world is only several thousand years old.
This plan backfired hysterically when Rep. Valarie Hodges discovered that, though the voucher plan mostly supports Christian organizations as it was intended, it could also end up supporting a private Muslim school. She voted for Jindal’s bill but “mistakenly assumed ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’ ”
Lest anybody mistake the obvious purpose of these bills, Hodges spelled it out. “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools, or private schools,” she told the paper. “[But] we need to ensure that [the new law] does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
Thus the voucher program was revealed to be not about improving education or guaranteeing religious liberty, but the state endorsement of Christian teachings.
4. Religious Freedom Bills
Thanks to the unexpected pushback against Indiana’s so-called religious freedom bill last month, which caught everybody, especially Indiana Governor Mike Pence, by surprise, religious freedom restoration acts are now the subject of public scrutiny.
It was almost too late. The federal RFRA was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, in response to a Supreme Court decision leaving religious minorities vulnerable to federal laws. The RFRA was an example of Clinton’s patented triangulation, which also gave us the Defense of Marriage Act and don’t ask, don’t tell, though this one has been arguably less damaging.
Because the law only covered federal policy, states have slowly enacted their own RFRAs over the past 20 years, and unlike the other laws on this list, there was nothing particularly conservative or pandering about them: one of the first examples was passed in Connecticut, not exactly Alabama.
But in recent years the RFRAs have gotten nastier (see Kansas) as right-wing lawmakers have realized that “religious freedom” laws could be used as cover for discrimination against gays and lesbians. The salutary spread of gay marriage legalization created a new space of conflicts—the wedding business—and gave legislators all the inspiration they needed to come screaming to the defense of what they call religious persecution.
When the RFRAs pass in states that don’t have anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians (as, for instance, Connecticut does), they become effectively weaponized. For instance, earlier this year in Michigan the state considered a bill that would allow doctors and EMTs to refuse to treat gay patients over religious objections.
The bills are so egregious that criticism, largely from the business community, forced the legislatures of Indiana and Arkansas to scramble for a fix. Indiana lacked (and refused to provide) protections for LGBT citizens; Arkansas had gone further and passed a state law superseding city ordinances protecting gays and lesbians. Both ended up explicitly stating that the bills could not be used to discriminate against LGBT citizens, getting close to providing gays and lesbians with more protections than before the bills were passed.
Not learning the lesson, Louisiana is still considering a similar bill that would allow someone in the wedding industry carte blanche to refuse service to gay couples. IBM is now warning the state to make similar changes to the bill as Arkansas and Indiana did, or risk losing business and investment—which, as you could probably tell from the desperation over its school system, is all the state has going for it.