By Ryan Jayne and Andrew L. Seidel
Every January, state legislatures around the country reconvene and lawmakers introduce bills addressing nearly every imaginable topic. They jockey for publicity and, in an election year, use this as an opportunity to pander as much as to legislate. As a result, FFRF receives a flood of reports about bills that impact the separation between state and church. Some of these bills are good, others are bad, a handful are truly dangerous, and a few are so silly that all you can do is laugh.
Our new Strategic Response Team gives FFRF new teeth to monitor legislation and to mobilize FFRF’s 33,000 members so that we can more effectively support good bills and defeat bad ones. In the first few months of 2018, the team already has more than 20 solid legislative victories. All the bills discussed below were analyzed by our group and you — our wonderful members — got involved to help shape this country’s legislative landscape.
First, let’s take a look at the ridiculous bills that have thankfully died well-deserved deaths. These come in two varieties: bills that are pandering wastes of time and would have no effect other than pleasing religious constituents, and bills that are so obviously unconstitutional that they would have been immediately struck down by the courts.
Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm proposed SB 1457, which would have given “Almighty God” ownership of all wildlife in the state. Dahm is a self-proclaimed product of missionaries and home-schooling. As one of FFRF’s attorneys observed, Dahm has no business legislating the lives of citizens, let alone wildlife. In Idaho, HB 419 sought to prevent courts from enforcing “foreign” laws, aiming at Sharia law. ( Mississippi HB 130 would have declared the bible as the state book. Really, Mississippi? Don’t you have pride in your native authors?)
It’s easy and appropriate to ridicule such bills — and we have — but lawmakers are wasting taxpayer time and money writing, debating and promoting these bills. Every minute spent on pandering do-nothing bills is a failure of lawmakers to find real-world solutions to the real problems affecting their state.
The second variety of silly pandering bills — the wildly unconstitutional type — are more numerous. Mississippi killed a bill to require public school teachers to display and recite the Ten Commandments (HB 1100); Wyoming rejected a bill to declare same-sex marriages “parody marriages” (HB 167); and Alabama had a bill that would have required public schools to teach creationism (HB 258). One Georgia lawmaker even proposed a bill because of a letter FFRF sent to a school district about a praying coach. The bill, SB 361, purported to allow public school coaches to pray with (impose prayer on) their students. The bill died.
These indefensible bills would have faced immediate court challenges from FFRF had they passed. However, even unconstitutional bills, if passed, are harmful because they embolden government employees to violate the U.S. Constitution by giving them the false security that they are protected by state law. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and state laws that conflict with it are unconstitutional. Pious lawmakers may want to use their public office to promote their imaginary friend, but FFRF members and constituents reminded them about what U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin said when he was a law professor at American University: “People place their hand on the bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the bible.”
More alarming are bad bills with legal and practical impact that would not have necessarily been immediately doomed in court. These include private school vouchers in Iowa (HS 651) and Idaho (H590); a bill that would have allowed healthcare providers in New Hampshire to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation (HB 1787); and Iowa bills allowing anti-transgender discrimination (HF 2164) and requiring public schools to offer bible classes (HF 2031). Three professors of religion, one from each state university, opposed the bible class bill with some behind-the-scenes help from the Strategic Response Team. FFRF thanks those professors, our members and local activists for helping us defeat these and many other harmful bills.
FFRF has also stopped bad bills that have unfortunately gained traction in other states. We are continuing to fight against these bills as they pop up in other states, and we are looking for the best way to challenge these laws in states that have passed these bills.
Florida, meanwhile, was considering amending its constitution to remove the “No Aid Clause,” a crucial religious liberty right that protects taxpayers from being forced to bankroll churches. In the wake of the disastrous Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court decision last year, this too has become a worrying trend. Following energized opposition from FFRF and other groups, including detailed testimony from Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, Florida’s attempt failed. This victory echoes the major success of upholding and enforcing a similar clause in New Jersey’s Constitution this month in FFRF’s 7–0 win at the N.J. Supreme Court. Most states have similar provisions and you can count on them staying under fire in the near future.
Supporting good bills
We are also happy to report that FFRF has supported several positive bills that have passed in 2018. In Alabama, HB 76 closed a loophole that allowed religious child care centers to dodge basic regulations. This senseless free pass allowed for rampant abuse and neglect to go unchecked, including reports of regulators identifying severe problems at a child care center only to find it rebranded as “faith-based” just days later so as to escape any punishment.
Supporters of Alabama’s HB 76 pointed to these abuses and others, and even instances of children dying because of the religious exemption. Last year, conservative Christian groups successfully killed the bill, arguing that the bill “removes religious liberty protections.” But religious liberty does not create a right to abuse or neglect children. This year, with FFRF’s support, HB 76 passed with flying colors.
Hawaii passed HB 2739, the “Our Care, Our Choice Act,” which makes it the sixth state to adopt a “Death with Dignity” law, allowing terminally ill, mentally competent patients to voluntarily request prescription medication that would allow the person to die in a peaceful manner rather than requiring them to endure an undignified death by letting their illness run its natural course.
While these laws have long been controversial, modern “Death with Dignity” laws have safeguards to address reasonable secular objections. The only objections that remain — and they always show up in opposition to these bills — are religious in nature, something along the lines of “only God gets to decide when someone dies.” This is no way to legislate, of course, which FFRF was happy to remind Hawaii’s lawmakers. FFRF is also supporting similar bills in New Jersey and several other states against religious objections.
Lobbying for you
This isn’t exhaustive and we’ll be racking up more victories as the legislative year moves along. As this goes to print, two of our attorneys, Patrick Elliott and Seidel, are lobbying for your interests on Capitol Hill.
That Mississippi would even consider choosing the poorly written bible as its “state book” is shameful. That it did so when prominent authors like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright have such strong ties to the state (and when Mark Twain featured Mississippi in some of his American classics) is in poor taste. To paraphrase Faulkner, never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you do, you will change the Earth.
Your legislators, at all levels of government, need to hear your voice. Remember that some of the worst bills are advanced because lawmakers think that’s what their constituents want them to do. Remind them that you are a secular voter and constituent and want them to ditch theocratic bills in favor of real solutions to real problems.
If you’re not signed up for FFRF’s action alerts, please do so. You can sign up by simply texting “FFRF” to 52886, emailing your contact info to [email protected], or calling the FFRF office.
Ryan Jayne and Andrew L. Seidel are constitutional attorneys at FFRF.