Chicago, Illinois: Since Donald Trump became President, new legislative measures have been released across the United States that aim to impose hardline Christian values across all levels of American society.
The measures, contained in a “playbook” known as Project Blitz, developed by a group of evangelical Christian organisations called the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (CPCF), has been sent to state legislators across the country to provide pro-Christian “model bills”. They aim to enshrine wide ranging “religious freedom” laws and many have already been enacted in several states.
The news comes after a 7-2 court ruling in Masterpiece Cake shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, ruled in favour of a baker not to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Although in handing down that ruling Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed concern about anti-gay exemptions, the decision was celebrated by Christian right groups, who view it as just the tip of the iceberg.
Last month Trump signed the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative” executive order that explicitly aims to bolster the contribution of faith groups in American society. The initiative charged the Office of Faith-based and Community initiatives with informing the administration of “any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law”.
Trump, who won the 2016 presidential election partly on the back of the evangelical Christian vote, has proven himself to be a powerful ally of the religious, despite being mired in his own controversies over paying off a porn star and his boasts of grabbing women by their genitals.
Since taking office Trump has already appointed more than 20 conservative judges and filled a Supreme Court vacancy with the arch-conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch. His appointed Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, has also worked closely with evangelical Christian groups.
“I could not be more proud to stand with President Trump as he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities of faith,” evangelical preacher Paula White told Religion News Service.
However, the new wave of religious exemption laws are already facing court challenges in some quarters.
Fatma Marouf and her female partner Bryn Esplin, married in 2015 in Texas. Last year the couple was denied adoption rights from Catholic Charities of Fort Worth to foster a refugee child and told their relationship did not “mirror the Holy Family”.
According to Jamie Gliksberg, attorney at Lambda Legal, “we are directly challenging HHS’s use of taxpayer dollars to fund these religious social service organisations that apply their religious criteria to turn down willing and capable same-sex couples as foster parents, thereby depriving children of loving and supportive homes in violation of the Establishment Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clause of this country’s Constitution,” she tells Fairfax Media.
The couple, who works at Texas A&M University, Marouf as a law professor and Esplin a bioethics professor, have sued both the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for acting “in a manner that impermissibly discriminates against same-sex couples who are prospective foster and adoptive” parents.
“We were shocked,” Marouf says. “We’re both highly educated, stable. We have a lot of love to give.”
The couple’s experience with the foster care system comes as the Trump administration establishes a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division inside the HHS, dedicated in part to shielding healthcare workers who refuse to provide services on religious grounds.
According to Samantha Sokol from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that first exposed the details behind Project Blitz, more legislators are likely to feel emboldened to discriminate against particular groups based on their own religious convictions.
Sokol says that her organisation has been tracking the introduction of new bills around the country and have recently noticed a disturbing trend.
“This year, we started seeing a trend we couldn’t explain,” she says. “Why were there suddenly dozens of new bills introduced, all over the country, requiring public schools to post the national motto ‘In God We Trust’?”
“Last year, there were three of these bills introduced, but this year, there were over 25. Why were these ‘In God We Trust’ bills at the top of legislators’ priority lists – passing in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee – when states are currently facing so many other pressing issues?”
Her organisation discovered that Project Blitz had distributed a 116-page report titled “Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America” to all state legislators promoting a raft of new laws – many of which have now been adopted word-for-word by state legislatures.
These include rolling back adoption rights for same-sex couples, placing “In God we trust” signs in schools, on police cars and other public places, rolling back exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health and promoting the teaching and celebration of Christianity in all schools.
“These bills aim at changing the meaning of religious freedom entirely, transforming it from a shield used to protect our rights to believe or not, to a sword that can be used to harm others,” Sokol wrote in a blog post.
“These bills commandeer state governments to promote a particular, narrow set of evangelical Christian political beliefs: that LGBTQ people should not have equal rights, that women should not have access to reproductive healthcare and that people of minority faiths and non-believers do not deserve the same protections.”
According to Katherine Stewart, author of the new book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Project Blitz is part of a new Christian Nationalist movement on the march across America aiming to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.
“The central strategy is to overwhelm state legislatures with so many religiously oriented bills that some of those bills can be expected to get through, and the centre of the debate gets shifted to the right,” she tells Fairfax Media.
Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, says that legislating higher levels of religious freedom from discrimination has become a benchmark of the Trump presidency. He says Christian nationalists are currently more emboldened than at any other time in recent American political history.
“The most frightening aspect of this push is that it, if successful, it will create two classes of people: Christians and everyone else,” he said.