On April 3, USA Today published an array of stories under the banner, “Copy, Paste, Legislate,” exploring the political impact of model bills on state-level legislation — more than 10,000 bills from 2010 to 2018 — based on a two-year joint investigation with the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity. The lead story headline said it all: "You elected them to write new laws. They’re letting corporations do it instead."
This article first appeared in Salon.
OK, it wasn't quite all. While corporate influence was the strongest, figures revealed that conservative groups weren’t far behind: There were 4,301 bills from industry and 4,012 from conservative groups, far more than the 1,602 from liberal groups or the 248 classified as “other.” The hidden origins of these bills often hides their true intent. The most notorious such group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, for instance combines business interests with movement conservatives.
But within the fold of “conservative groups” there’s a whole other story to be told about the organizing of extremist religious conservatives, whose political mobilization, as I’ve noted in the past, played a crucial role in electing Donald Trump. Indeed, just the day before “Copy, Past, Legislate” was published, the Texas Senate passed SB-17, a bill that would protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination by all licensed professionals who claim to act on a “sincerely held religious belief.”
“It’s time for Americans to wake up to the harsh reality that the religious right, fueled by their fear of loss of power from the changing demographics in our country and their support from the Trump administration, is emboldened and aggressively pursuing all means possible to maintain white Christian power in America,” Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, told Salon. “Project Blitz, for example, has already introduced over 50 bills in at least 23 states this year alone,” she added.
One spin-off story published in the Nashville Tennessean dealt specifically with an anti-LGTBQ adoption model bill. (Simultaneously, NBC reported such bills were “'snowballing' in state legislatures.”) The Tennessee bill came from Project Blitz, which was described as “a legislative effort with the stated aim to ‘bring back God to America.’" But as Salon has reported in the past, Project Blitz is much more sinister than that.
Frederick Clarkson, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, was the first to discover its three-tier playbook, produced by a coalition of right-wing activists he’d long been following, including Texas Republican activist and pseudo-historian David Barton, whose book, “Jefferson Lies,” which tried to remake Thomas Jefferson as an evangelical hero, was canceled by its publisher under withering criticism from conservative and evangelical scholars (followup here).
“The authors of the Project Blitz playbook are savvy purveyors of dominionism,” Clarkson told Salon at the time. “They are in it for the long haul and try not to say things that sound too alarming. But they live an immanent theocratic vision.” Not all their allies would go all the way with them, Clarkson told me, but the theocratic end they envision is chillingly akin to “The Handmaid's Tale” — reason enough to warrant far more attention than they’ve gotten so far.
The first tier of Project Blitz aims at importing the Christian nationalist worldview into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere, the second tier aims at making government increasingly a partner in “Christianizing” America, and the third tier contains three types of proposed laws that “protect” religious beliefs and practices specifically intended to benefit bigotry.
“Although category three is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," Clarkson explained. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate. This is one way that the agenda of theocratic dominionism is reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"
The broader findings revealed in “Copy, Paste, Legislate” help to expand our understanding by highlighting three significant patterns shared in various ways with Project Blitz, which are used to advance their theocratic agenda, often hiding it in plain sight:
1) Misleading Language That Inverts Common Sense Project Blitz does this repeatedly with the most fundamental terms: “religious freedom,” “First Amendment,” and so on. In doing so, it mirrors what corporations and insurance companies did with “transparency” in the “Asbestos Transparency Act,” switching the roles of victims and perpetrators, casting themselves as “victims of litigation filed by people harmed by asbestos,” and requiring mesothelioma victims to seek money from an asbestos trust — a lengthy process many won’t live long enough to benefit from. How’s that for “transparency”?
2) Goalpost Moving The entire Project Blitz concept is premised on moving the goalposts. It’s built into the very structure of its three-tiered playbook, as well as the logic of the supporting arguments. A similar strategy was involved in promoting vouchers in Arizona, beginning with a voucher for students with disabilities, then following up with bill after bill offering vouchers to more and more students, eventually all of them, with no guarantee protecting the first group of recipients from getting lost in the process.
“Every single, little expansion, if you look at who's behind it, it is the people that want to get that door kicked open for private religious education," the mother of two children on the autism spectrum said. "All we (families with disabled students) are was the way for them to crack open the door.”
3) Pre-emption Project Blitz doesn’t use the term “pre-emption,” but since state-level law routinely pre-empts local laws — which often protect LGBTQ rights, for example — it’s implicitly integral to their strategy. Model bills tracked by USA Today often focused on such pre-emption:
These laws, in effect, allow state legislators to dictate to city councils and county governing boards what they can and cannot do within their jurisdiction — including preventing them from raising the minimum wage, banning plastic grocery bags, and destroying guns.
North Carolina’s notorious bathroom bill was an example of the kind of bill that Project Blitz could take up in the future, and politicians associated with Project Blitz have already copied it — most notably, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose efforts last session ultimately failed. Last month, Texas was at it again, when an ALEC-inspired effort to pre-empt local worker protections was hijacked by Patrick allies to pre-empt LBGTQ protections as well.
With these patterns in mind, let’s first consider how the religious right has attempted to reinvent bigotry as freedom, and then take a look at contemporary state battles in Texas and elsewhere.
Bigot’s Rights: Theocracy’s Foundation
As I noted here in 2016, this new homophobic discriminatory vision exactly echoes the racist discriminatory vision that birthed the religious right in the 1970s. The connection is transparently obvious. When Mississippi passed a “religious freedom” law that year, which only protected the freedom of bigots, the Jackson city council unanimously passed a resolution rebuking the law, and Mayor Tony Yarber explicitly connected bigotry past and present:
As a predominantly black city in Mississippi, the Jackson community has endured racism, discrimination and injustice over the years. We are Mississippi’s capital city, and as part of our declaration of being the "Bold New City," we will not discriminate against any individual because of race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, nor do we support legislation that allows for such discrimination.
The battleground Project Blitz has chosen revolves around a falsified history of America as a “Christian nation” — sharply at odds with “The Godless Constitution” we actually have — and a newly-minted definition of “Christianity” as rooted in homophobia. With these twin lies in place, they position themselves as the “true Christians” and “true Americans” suffering from government oppression.
With that false social identity in place, Christian nationalists rationalize the “freedom” to discriminate as a fundamental right, powering a shift from defense to offense, that was perfectly captured by Katherine Stewart in a New York Times op-ed last year, "A Christian Nationalist Blitz." Stewart described participants in a Project Blitz conference call referring to the above law “in awed tones as ‘the Mississippi missile.’” To understand why, here’s its exact language:
SECTION 2. The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that:
(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.
In Project Blitz’s 2018-19 playbook, this is called the "Marriage Tolerance Act" (aka "First Amendment Defense Act") and uses the same narrowly-tailored definition. But if “legislators do not have enough support to pass the recommended language,” the playbook offers “a fall-back position,” replacing the explicit language with the vaguely-worded alternative, “regarding lawful marriage in this state.”
This is not advised, however, because of the danger that it will be used by non-bigots. The playbook explains:
We repeat, however, that we advise against this alternative. This language still carries a risk, even if slim, of being abused by an individual or group alleging that their same-sex marriage views are a “sincerely held religious belief.”
Such is the mindset behind the façade of promoting American freedom.
In Texas, as noted above, a Project Blitz bill, SB-17, just passed the State Senate. It would allow anti-LGBTQ discrimination by any licensed professional. (Technically, such a professional could still be sued for discrimination, but could rely on the law at trial.) In rural Texas, this could easily mean a total lack of services. It’s not just health care professionals who could wantonly hold people’s lives in their hands. If passed, an LGBTQ Texan could well die of heatstroke because of an air-conditioning repair person’s “sincerely held religious belief,” as pointed out by Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, in an April 8 press conference call.
“Life as a trans person in Texas is already very difficult,” Schelling said. “Enacting this law would make it even more difficult ... if not impossible, for those of us marginalized within our community.”
"The last legislative session, most of the oxygen was taken up with epic battles over a bathroom bill," added Samantha Smoot, interim executive director of Equality Texas, on the same call. That push was led by Lt. Gov. Patrick, whose efforts ultimately failed. The election that followed was widely seen as “in large part a referendum on the bathroom bill,” Smoot said. “Twelve new pro-equality legislators were elected here in Texas; four of the top proponents of the bathroom bill were defeated,” she said. “That led us to the beginning of the session, and the lieutenant governor stating publicly that this is going to be a meat-and-potatoes session, that we’re not going to see the types of attacks on LGBTQ people that had characterized the 2017 legislative session.”
Now, in a stark turnaround, SB-17 has renewed the battle, already drawing strong business opposition, in fears of repeating North Carolina’s experience. It isn’t alone. “SB 17 is one of 15 bills that have been filed this session that aim to turn religion into a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people in Texas,” Smoot said.
On the same call, Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, discussed the influence of David Barton and Project Blitz. “It now seems clear that Texas is at the center of the nationwide state-by-state strategy to pass legislation that uses religion to block or roll back nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Texans and LGBTQ Americans,” Miller said. “Make no mistake, what is happening in Texas now will happen in other states as well. In fact, it already has.”
“What’s extraordinary about the Texas bill is its reach,” Clarkson said after the call. We’ve been used to adoption agency bills, for example, he noted, “But this has to do with all state professional licensing agencies. So if you’re a social worker or teacher, as well as a health care worker, you can declare religious exemptions in service to LGBTQ people on a range that's breathtaking,” he said. “I don't think we've seen that anywhere else.”
What could this portend? “It suggests we're on a slippery slope, just in terms of the nature and the range of religious exemptions and how broadly they can apply,” Clarkson said. “It’s accelerating and expanding in a way we have not seen elsewhere. Everybody should be rightly concerned about the unambiguous dominionist intentions of Project Blitz generally, and of many of the backers of legislation like this.”
On the other hand, some people’s willingness to go along is limited or conditional, and political circumstances certainly can change —and have done so, as witness the midterm election results.
“On the plus side of this, for 2020, I think that the recent round of elections showed what's possible,” Clarkson noted. “That shows that there is a vast swath of Americans that, if they decide to act, can make a decisive difference in situations like this."
To better understand David Barton’s role in particular, I turned to Chris Rodda, author of "Liars for Jesus" and senior research director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. On the one hand, as an activist, she noted, “Barton has for years encouraged his followers to run for local and state office, from school boards on up, and pushed the importance of local of state and local elections to get the voter turnout.” This local election focus is where evangelical conservatives consistently have an edge over Democrats, she noted.
Barton's fake version of history is directly connected to political outcomes, Rodda said. “The reason for the history revisionism is to make the followers of people like Barton think that the religious legislation is justified by history,” Rodda said. “Since most Christians aren't liars, he has to get them to genuinely believe that the legislation that they're trying to get passed is what the founders intended,” when it’s actually the exact opposite, as I’ve noted repeatedly before (here, here and here).
The Power of Lies
As noted above, the twin lies that America was founded as a Christian nation and that Christianity is defined by homophobia combine to create a powerful social identity, which in turn helps facilitate the spread of Project Blitz’s agenda, whether precisely embodied in model bills or not.
This can be seen in two related stories from Missouri. First, Madison McVan at the Missourian reported on a trio of bills whose intent aligns with Project Blitz — Missouri House Bill 267, whose text resembles the “Bible Literacy Act,” a Senate resolution encouraging schools to offer Bible literacy electives (similar in spirit only), and House Bill 577, which is much shorter than the “National Motto Display Act” from Project Blitz, but with the same end result: “The bill would require public schools to display ‘In God We Trust’ in a prominent location such as a school entryway or cafeteria.”
None of the authors claimed to know about Project Blitz, but its influence was obvious. The textually similar bill came from copying other state laws. Another was written by the chair of the Missouri Prayer Caucus Network, whose national foundation helped creation the Project Blitz handbook. He claimed to have had no involvement. The third author could not remember where the text came from — only that someone had offered it and he liked it.
"Even if some legislators introduce bills that they do not know draws language from Project Blitz model bills, it certainly validates Project Blitz methods, which get their material circulated, even if indirectly from other states that may use it more overtly,” Clarkson said. “Similarly, just because someone is not a member of a state's legislative prayer caucus doesn't mean that they are not influenced by those who are."
In short, the impacts of Project Blitz go well beyond what the textual analysis behind “Cut, Paste, Legislate” can measure.
The role of shaping a social identity is especially noteworthy in the second Missouri story, from the Missouri Times. It concerns House Bill 728, which would prohibit anonymous freedom of religion lawsuits — which are allowed under current law, if the person brining the lawsuit can show cause. “The Missouri bill that prohibits church-state plaintiffs from being anonymous despite, or perhaps because of, the likelihood that these plaintiffs are harassed and even receive death threats is another example of how emboldened and immoral the religious right is today,” said Laser of Americans United.
But the bill’s author, Rep. Hardy Billington, continued to play the victim. “House Bill 728 would guarantee that no individual or organization will be able to use state courts as a weapon to attack the right of Missouri citizens to display religious symbols in public spaces while hiding behind a cloak of secrecy,” he said.
Of course that “right” only exists in Barton’s mythical history. But myths have tremendous power in Trump’s post-truth America. Which is why political leaders need to step up, Laser argued.
Elected officials and political candidates "must advocate for church-state separation with renewed energy and commitment and remind the public that it is core to our country’s commitment to diversity and unity, and core to our identity,” she said. “They must make clear that ‘religious freedom’ is a shield to protect, not a sword to harm others or license to discriminate.”