WASHINGTON — Legislative leaders from nine states Tuesday, citing a growing polarization on the issue of religious freedom, announced the formation of state religious freedom caucuses. There are plans to have similar legislative caucuses in all 50 states by the end of 2013.
The first wave of caucuses are headed by legislative leaders in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee. A caucus in Utah is anticipated to be announced in January, although its local leaders haven't been publicly identified.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program is heading up the caucus effort to provide resources and expertise to state lawmakers who want to set state-specific religious freedom policy.
The program is targeting states with a strategy to combat threats to religious liberty on the ground level and help create a thoughtful, less polarized approach to resolving differences that will inform federal officials.
"A high percentage of laws are made in state houses, not by Congress, and a high percentage of religious freedom threats materialize in states," said Tim Schultz, state legislative policy director for ARFP. "But states have not been as quick to recognize that this is something they will have to confront."
The exceptions are representatives from the nine states on-hand for a teleconference announcing the caucuses.
"Legislative caucuses focused on religious freedom will help ensure that each statehouse is a bulwark against overreaching government officials and policies that would corrupt or curtail those freedoms," said Kansas Republican Rep. Lance Kinzer, who is chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Schultz said Kansas is where a Jehovah's Witness and Medicaid recipient was denied state help for an alternative treatment because her faith prevented her from having a blood transfusion. It took two years for the courts to finally rule in her favor.
Schultz said those types of cases typically are what religious liberty advocates find on the state level and hope to address through the state caucuses through legislation. He said lawmakers and the public often place religious liberty disputes in the realm of Congress or the courts, or identify with the issue in cases of prayer or Christmas displays in public places.
"Those are actually establishment clauses cases. But the new threat is in the (free) exercise clause of the First Amendment and threaten people's ability to practice their faith outside the walls of the church, synagoge or mosque. States have been a little bit slower to see these threats materialize," he said.
Stewart Gollan, managing attorney for the Utah Legal Clinic, which has often sued the state over First Amendment issues, welcomes the attention the caucuses and ARFP could bring to vetting the constitutionality of proposed state legislation.
"Government needs to be both not hostile toward religion or inhibit free exercise, but not favor one religion over another," Gollan said, explaining the balance that must be maintained between the establisment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
Other instances of religious freedom infringement on the state level involve health care mandates, where providers are forced to provide medication or treatment that violates their conscience. In Arizona, House Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko successfully sponsored the so-called Arizona Birth Control Bill, which among other things allows employers the right to deny coverage of birth control if it goes against their religious beliefs.
Lesko's work put her on ARFP's radar along with other lawmakers working in the religious freedom realm in their respective states who created the initial nine caucuses. But successfully fighting for the cause is just one quality ARFP is looking for. The program is also identifying legislators who have set the proper tone for the debate and are respectiful to religious minorities in upholding their rights.
"The most important thing that can be done is to help diffuse the polarized rhetoric about religious freedom," said Brian Walsh, ARFP's executive director.
He explained that the national debate has been inflamed with terms such as "war on religion" and "culture wars" that force both sides to retrench and fight it out rather respect each other's posititions and work to resolve their differences.
"If the state caucuses can help set the tone and educate Americans on principles of religious freedom and how they are productive and useful to our religious pluralism then it can be helpful to members of Congress to see that Americans recognize the nuances of religious freedom and are willing to stand up for it," Walsh said.
In addition to being a resource center and clearinghouse of information on religious liberty for state lawmakers, the American Religious Freedom Program says it will work with a broad range of legislators, religious leaders and other coalition members to help form additional caucuses and produce state-specific educational materials on religious freedom.
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