Trump, Cruz, & Dominionism: Some Christian Right Leaders Fear a Crack-Up

The 2016 Republican presidential campaign has transformed American politics, likely forever. Everyone is making adjustments, but two recent illuminating episodes suggest that some Christian Right leaders are finding the changes to be unusually awkward and challenging.

trump cruzThe Christian Right, as a voting bloc, has never united behind a single candidate during the Republican presidential primaries (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s unopposed second-term races). Still, we tend to forget that the movement has never been monolithic and that there have always been political tensions between rival candidates and factions. But the factional tensions are different this year. And there are two main reasons for this.

The first tension is related to the unique, and uniquely divisive, candidacy of Donald Trump. Evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie, in a curiously overwrought speech, widely-discussed in the evangelical press, has gone so far as to call it a conservative “crack-up.”  The second is the specter of Dominionism as it relates to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his campaign. 

The Christian Post recently reported on the eyebrow-raising remarks of evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie at a luncheon sponsored by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington DC.  (IRD is best known for its efforts to degrade the historic communions of mainline Protestantism.)  Cromartie runs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC.

Cromartie is upset that the “new branding” of evangelicalism and the Christian Right is being ruined by evangelical and conservative leaders who support Trump. He said the movement has benefited from the rise of Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and megachurch pastors and authors Tim Keller and Rick Warren. He believes that they better “present” the movement’s goals than such founding Christian Right figures as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, Sr.

But this rebranding, Cromartie says, has been undone because of the pro-Trump activities of noted Southern Baptists such as megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

The Christian Post continued:

“In the last six or seven or eight years, we now have new leaders to replace those leaders, so that it’s a new branding of evangelicals in our society,” Cromartie stated. “Now, that is all out the window, ladies and gentleman, when Jerry Falwell Jr. has the audacity to come out and endorse Donald Trump, when Robert Jeffress goes on and sells his soul every week on Fox News, encouraging the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

“If this is not a crack up,” Cromartie observed,” I don’t know what it is.”

As if to underscore his confusion about all this, Cromartie also cited blogger Matt Walsh, whose hyperbolic post “Let’s Remember The Cowardly Conservative Leaders Who Betrayed Us For Trump” leaves readers with little doubt that the faction fighting is getting bitter.

Speaking of Falwell and Jeffress, Walsh declared:

“They now promote Trump in direct defiance of Scripture, which clearly stipulates that anyone who desires to be a leader must be noble, respectable, temperate, and dignified (and probably not someone who brags about his adultery and thinks the nation’s largest abortion provider is ‘wonderful [sic]).  To claim Trump belongs in any of these categories is blasphemy.”

“Our ‘leaders’” he continued, “have subjugated themselves to the American Kim Jong Un simply for the publicity and the ratings and the chance to be friends with a billionaire celebrity.”

Meanwhile, the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his unexpected emergence as the leading candidate of both the Christian Right and much of the GOP establishment as an alternative to Trump is causing the movement other kinds of indigestion.

Catholic neoconservative strategist Robert P. George is apparently worried about how voters will react to the way Senator Cruz relates his religious views to public policy. Specifically, he is worried about Ted Cruz and Dominionism.

At the beginning of the presidential primary season four years ago, the Christian Right was similarly worried that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) were receiving press attention for their well-established involvements in the theocratic politics of Dominionism.

In that race, those two candidates both dropped out early. But with Cruz actually having a shot at the nomination, George apparently hopes to squelch the emerging discussion about Cruz and Dominionism before it goes any further. This may be why he was featured in a recent article in Christianity Today, which sought to smear researchers who have published about Cruz’s dominionist roots, namely evangelical historian John Fea, evangelical psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, and myself.

In the article, George claimed:

“The contemporary religious Left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting is to smear opponents by labeling them ‘dominionists.’ … Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist.”

This is as silly as it is wrong.  What’s more, although former PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and I may have defined and popularized the terms “Dominionism” and “dominionist” in the 90s as a way to describe a tendency that is evident across a wide swath of evangelicalism, we have always sought to apply it fairly and accurately.

Nevertheless, George and the authors of the article did not offer a single example of the supposedly McCarthyist-style uses of the term by those of us named in the article or anyone else.

Also ignored by the authors and George is the fact that the term was part of the debate about Christian Reconstructionism in the evangelical community for years before Berlet and I used it for wider publics.1  The term has also been objectively employed in many scholarly books and articles.

As I recently told journalist Bill Berkowitz, who wrote about the discussion of Cruz and Dominionism for Truthout, “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.” John Fea has detailed how, in addition to Cruz’s own statements, Cruz’s father Rafael (who is also his principal campaign surrogate) is openly a 7 Mountains Dominionist, as is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC – revisionist historian David Barton. One of Cruz’s foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, is also a well-known 7 Mountains Dominionist and a longtime board member of a 7 Mountains political project called The Oak Initiative.

The public debate about the Christian Right is usually limited to the tripartite agenda of what they term “life, marriage, and religious liberty” as put forth in The Manhattan Declaration.  But their agenda has always been broader and deeper than that, which is why Robert P. George, the principal author of the Declaration (and current Vice Chairman of EPPC) does not want to risk us talking about the political and economic dimensions of what they mean by “taking dominion” over society. This, combined with the bitterness of some about evangelical support for Trump, may very well signal a period of disunity rather than the politically homogenized evangelicalism preferred by Washington, DC think tanks and power brokers.


[1]  These usages are discussed in Christian Reconstructionism:  R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.; page 204.

Gunning for Office: Oregon’s Patriot Movement and the May 2016 Primary

This article is based on research from a forthcoming report about Oregon’s Patriot movement, which will be published by the Rural Organizing Project and Political Research Associates.

In the wake of the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and February 2016, a slew of candidates linked to the so-called Patriot movement are running for office in Oregon, including in the upcoming May primary. Even though most of the actual occupiers were from out of state, the occupation highlighted the state’s large and growing Patriot movement. These often-armed, Hard Right activists organized the initial demonstration that preceded the occupation and helped build political support for the occupiers’ demands. These demands included the transfer of federally owned public lands to state or county governments in order to avoid land-use restrictions, as well as attempts to circumvent the federal government’s decision-making powers by invoking legally groundless claims about the authority of state and county governments.

Patriot Movement-affiliated candidates and elected officials are in several Oregon counties.

Patriot Movement-affiliated candidates and elected officials are in several Oregon counties.

The arrest of over two dozen people connected to the Malheur occupation, in addition to the death of occupier Robert “Lavoy” Finicum at the hands of law enforcement, has energized the movement—which now has a new martyr and opportunities for activism to support their newly minted political prisoners. For the last few years, the state’s Patriot movement largely focused on non-electoral movement building; some county sheriffs and a handful of other officials were affiliated with its aims, but by and large it remained outside of the electoral arena. This is changing with Oregon’s May 17, 2016 primary election. In several counties where Oregon’s Patriot movement is strong—including Josephine, Crook, Baker, Douglas, and Harney—candidates tied to the movement are running for office. These candidates include key Patriot movement leaders such as Joseph Rice, as well as Republicans who are courting the movement for votes.

The Patriot movement is a Hard Right movement that is trying to radically transform U.S. political and legal institutions. It seeks to implement a form of right-wing decentralization, including the abolition of environmental laws and the social safety net, replacing them with almost completely unrestricted capitalism, all based on an idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution and various conspiracy theories which support their political views. The best known of the movement’s tactics is the formation of paramilitaries—traditionally “militias,” but more recently including other, more decentralized, armed approaches.

The movement also relies on a number of crank “legal” strategies that have no basis in law. The most important is “nullification,” the notion that a lower government (such as the county or state) can ignore laws passed by a higher authority (usually the federal government). One popular form of nullification is the false claim that county sheriffs have the authority to decide which laws are unconstitutional and therefore should not be enforced.1

The movement also promotes the concept of “coordination”: the false idea that federal agencies must comply with county government plans regarding land-use decisions, usually about natural resource extraction on federal lands that are within a county’s borders. Coordination is a new form of “county supremacy,” an idea popular in the 1990s that is re-emerging.2 By 1996, 70 counties had passed laws attempting to gain control over federal lands.3 (This is based on the idea that removing restrictions on natural resource extraction will revive moribund rural economies.) In the end, these county governments only wasted their energies tilting at windmills, instead of working on constructive solutions to local problems. Related to this, many in the movement believe the federal government has no legal right to own most public land, which they think should be transferred to state or county control. All of these positions reflect hostility toward the federal government, which is not uncommon in the rural West.

Because of the movement’s political focus on the county, it is not surprising that this year’s crop of Patriot-friendly candidates are largely seeking seats at the county level.

The most important Oregon Patriot movement groups today are those associated with the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and the Pacific Patriots Network. The Oath Keepers are a national membership-based organization that recruits current and former police, military, and first responders; however others can still be “associate members.” Members swear to disobey government orders they claim are unconstitutional, but these are mostly staple right-wing conspiracy theories such as federal government plans to disarm civilians before herding them into concentration camps. The CSPOA is composed of standing law enforcement members and is affiliated with the Oath Keepers. Their founder, former county sheriff Richard Mack, believes the county sheriff has the authority to interpret the Constitution, and therefore decide which laws should be enforced. The Three Percenters are a somewhat decentralized militia; individuals can identify with the label, but in some places, including Oregon, there are also organized groups with leadership structures. Some individual Three Percenters were involved in the Malheur occupation.4 The Pacific Patriots Network is a network of nine “partner” groups, mostly based in Oregon and Idaho, including the Oath Keepers of Josephine County and both the Oregon and Idaho Three Percenters. The Pacific Patriots Network became infamous for their third-party activities around the Malheur occupation in Burns, Oregon—the town just outside the refuge.5 Their members organized the initial January 2, 2016 march that the occupation came out of; held events and meetings in Burns to promote Patriot movement ideology; deployed armed members in the town; and helped bring supplies to the refuge. This allowed them to try to position themselves as a neutral party while really playing “good cop” to the occupiers’ “bad cop,” and raising their public profile at the same time.

If the current wave of Patriot–affiliated candidates in Oregon are elected, it will not be the first time sympathizers with this movement have held office. Quite a few public officials supported the militia movement in the 1990s—the direct precursor to today’s Patriot movement—including then-U.S. Representatives Steve Stockman from Texas and the late Helen Chenoweth-Hage from Idaho, as well as many state and local legislators, such as the late Colorado State Representative and Senator Charlie Duke.6

There are a number of current Oregon officials who have links to Patriot groups or who showed support for nullification, coordination, and/or the Malheur occupation in different ways. (Please note that the inclusion of a candidate or elected official in this article only relates to their political beliefs and is not an accusation that they are engaged in paramilitary training or illegal political actions.)

  • Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, perhaps the best known in this list of currently serving officials, was on the CSPOA’s Council of Sheriffs, Peace Officers and Public Officials and won the 2012 CSPOA Sheriff of the Year Award. In 2015 he tried to invoke coordination for his sheriff’s office to have rights on federal forestland. He also met with occupiers during the occupation, and the occupation’s leadership was stopped and confronted by law enforcement when they were traveling to meet Palmer at a community meeting in the town of John Day.7
  • State Representative Dallas Heard (District 2) visited the occupation as part of a trip with out-of-state elected officials.8
  • State Representative Carl Wilson (District 3) was praised by the Oath Keepers for writing a letter in support of miners who established armed encampments at the Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, Oregon in spring 2015 over a land use conflict with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).9 This incident is seen as a precursor to the Malheur occupation.
  • Baker County Commissioner Bill Harvey has invoked coordination and spoke at a “Rural Lives Matter” rally—one of the first statewide attempts to build Patriot movement public support after the Malheur occupation ended.10
  • Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett publicly blamed the BLM for Malheur occupier Robert “Lavoy” Finicum’s death and has supported the movement’s politics in general.11
  • Grants Pass City Councilor Roy Lindsay is the treasurer of the Josephine County Oath Keepers.12

In addition, state Senator Kim Thatcher (District 13) and state Representatives Bill Post (District 25) and Mike Nearman (District 23) took part in a spring 2015 rally in Salem, Oregon against SB941, a state law requiring background checks for private gun sales. They appeared alongside two Patriot movement leaders, including Three Percenters’ cofounder Mike Vanderboegh. He threatened “civil war” (as he did at the Bundy Ranch) as a response to the new law, calling Oregon Governor Kate Brown and others in the state government “tyrants” and “domestic enemies of the Constitution.” Vanderboegh concluded, “this country has long had a remedy for tyrants—a second amendment remedy. So be careful for what you wish for, Madam—you may get it.”13

In addition to the currently serving officials, there are at least fourteen Patriot movement affiliated candidates running for Oregon office—although there are undoubtedly more who have escaped our attention or are hiding their affiliations. Most candidates are running in the May primary, although some races will be decided in the November election. These include candidates who are Patriot movement activists; those who are directly courting or endorsed by Patriot groups; and those promoting the movement’s radical political positions including nullification, coordination, and sympathy with the Malheur occupation.

State Races

Bruce Cuff is a gubernatorial candidate in the Republican primary and is actively seeking Patriot movement support.14 According to his website, “The highest elected law enforcement officers in the State of Oregon are the 36 County Sheriffs.” It also says, “All Federal lands should be returned to the State of Oregon so local counties can manage the public lands within their borders.” His campaign strategy statement invokes Article 1, Section 8, Paragraph 17 of the U.S. Constitution to support the legally specious belief that the federal government is restricted to owning what, in the Patriot movement’s jargon, is referred to as “forts, ports, and ten square miles” (of Washington, D.C.).15 He is campaigning on the idea of “state sovereignty,” saying that any actions by at least ten federal agencies (including the FBI, BLM, and OSHA) will have to be permitted by both the state governor and local sheriff. He also attacks Oregon Governor Brown for allowing Syrian refugees into the state by invoking typical demonizing rhetoric, including accusations that they are disease carriers and are potential ISIS members.16 Cuff attended a March 2016 Portland rally supporting those arrested for the Malheur occupation; elsewhere he said, “Lavoy was murdered,” and placed the blame on Governor Brown.17 In 2014, Cuff ran in the Republican primary for governor and received 23,912 votes (9.7 percent).18

The Constitution Party of Oregon is a Hard Right theocratic party that split from the party’s national organization in 2006, although the state party has the option to place the national party’s candidate on the ballot. In the 1990s, the national party was named the U.S. Taxpayer Party and it had many links to the militia movement.19 Today, some members are also involved with the Oath Keepers. The Constitution Party of Oregon’s platform calls for the transfer of federal public lands, the right of the county sheriff to interpret the Constitution, and for taxes to be paid in gold or silver. During the occupation, the party called for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to be transferred out of federal hands.20 The Constitution Party of Oregon’s gubernatorial candidate is Aaron Auer, and party candidates for the November election are expected to be announced soon. Auer ran for Oregon governor in 2014 and received 15,929 votes.21

Dennis Linthicum is the only Republican candidate for state senate for District 28 so he is up for election in November. Linthicum was a Klamath County Commissioner from 2011 to 2015. He appeared at an event alongside then-CSPOA Sheriff Gil Gilbertson of Josephine County, and is active with Patriot movement social media. In a blog post written before the Malheur occupation, about the convictions of Dwight and Steven Hammond (whose mandatory minimum prison sentences for arson were the initial issue which inspired the occupation), Linthicum echoed Patriot movement conspiracies that “the vast majority of actions at the federal level are aimed at building a federal empire of absolute control.” He later wrote favorably about the Malheur occupation, claiming that those who did not support it were beingtrapped in the web of manufactured information,” and implying it was the federal government—not the occupiers—that was the real party guilty of breaking the law.22 In 2014, he challenged Greg Walden in the Republican primary for the U.S. House seat in District 2 and received 19,936 votes (24 percent).23

Jo Rae Perkins is running in the Republican primary for U.S. Representative in District 4 and is heavily courting Patriot movement support. She is challenging Art Robinson, who ran for the position several times, and in 2014 was both the Republican and Constitution Party candidate. Her calendar shows her appearances with right-wing groups like the Oath Keepers of Linn & Benton Counties, Lane County’s 912 Project, and the Liberators—though it omits her Roseburg, Oregon talk hosted by Three Percenters.24 Perkins is a former Linn County Republican Party chair.25 Her platform includes standard right-wing causes such as opposing immigration (including ending sanctuary cities), making abortion illegal, and supporting gun rights. Additionally, she cites Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution to support the erroneous belief the federal government cannot legally own most public lands.26

County Races

In Harney County, where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation occurred, at least three Patriot-style candidates are running for county positions. Charmaign “Sis” Edwards, one of the few local ranchers who supported the Malheur takeover, is running for Commissioner. She is currently on the South Harney School Board and has a grazing permit on Bureau of Land Management property.27 On December 11, 2015, before the occupation, she signed a “Redress of Grievances” concerning the Hammond family that was being forwarded by a number of Patriot groups.28 Edwards and her husband visited the occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and, after meeting with Ammon Bundy, told reporters they supported both the occupation and the transfer of the refuge land to local control.29 She is using “Rural Lives Matter” as a campaign slogan, and in one Facebook post promotes a right-wing conspiracy theory popular in Patriot movement circles about Agenda 21. In reality, this is a nonbinding United Nations’ resolution that advocates ecologically sustainable development; however, right-wing conspiracy theorists believe it is actually a nefarious global socialist plot to drive rural people off the land and into cities, where they will be herded in concentration camps. On Edwards’s Facebook page, she cites Agenda 21 a part of “a serious effort to reduce the population and control man’s existence by a New World Order.”30

Anna Jo Surber is running for Harney County Judge, a position similar to a county commission chair, currently held by Steve Grasty, an outspoken critic of the occupation who is retiring. Surber is an employee at the Narrows, the restaurant and RV park just outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters that welcomed the occupiers as customers. Her campaign Facebook page says, “We need constitutional Judges, Sheriffs and other elected officials.”31 One week into the occupation, she agreed with a podcast interviewer that the armed occupation was “a good tactic” and described the occupiers as “peaceful.”32 A couple weeks later, in an interview with Pete Santilli, the Patriot movement livestreamer who was arrested for his role in the occupation and is in jail awaiting trial, Surber described the tactic of nullification as “exactly what I would want to do.”33

Alan Johnson is running for Harney County Sheriff. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Johnson’s candidacy is “sanctioned” by the CSPOA, and he was in attendance at CSPOA founder Richard Mack’s February talk in Harney County.34 He is running against Sheriff David Ward, a supporter of the Hammond family who had initially met with Ammon Bundy and other Patriot activists. However, Ward (along with Judge Steve Grasty) became an outspoken critic of the occupation, even as he continued to meet with the occupiers and work for a peaceful resolution.”

In Josephine County, the co-founder of the Pacific Patriots Network and leader of the county’s Oath Keepers chapter, Joseph Rice, is running for county commission. Rice was the de facto leader of the Sugar Pine Mine operation in spring 2015. In this incident, Patriot movement activists came from around the country to Josephine County and established armed camps in support of locals on a mining claim were who were in conflict with the Bureau of Land Management. Members of the Josephine County Oath Keepers helped organize the original demonstration in Burns in support of the Hammonds, which Ammon Bundy and others left at the end of to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. The Josephine County Oath Keepers is part of the Pacific Patriots Network, and although they technically distanced themselves from the occupation, Rice met with the occupiers and the Pacific Patriots Network came back to Burns to attempt to politically profit from the situation.35 In this primary, Rice is vying for Position 2 County Commissioner against other prominent local right-wingers, including Dale Matthews, who runs the Bad County website, and Paul Walter, who runs the conspiracist News With Views website.36

In Crook County, two members of the Central Oregon Patriots (COP) are seeking county positions. COP is an influential local political organization; its origins are in the Tea Party and although its politics are similar to the Patriot movement it is tactically more moderate than the other groups mentioned here.37 However, COP has cross-membership with the Oath Keepers and connections with members of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, which is part of the Pacific Patriots Network. COP co-organizer, Ken Taylor, is the Crook County Republican Party chair.38

COP Chair Craig Brookhart is running for Crook County Judge, a position that, like in Harney County, is roughly equivalent to a county commission chair. In 2012, Brookhart ran in the county Republican primary for Judge, receiving 972 votes (32.96 percent).39 Brookhart is also secretary of the Crook County Republican Party, a Precinct Committee Person and the Chair of the Crook County Natural Resources PAC, another vehicle for Patriot movement politics.40 The PAC has already held a seminar to promote the idea of coordination.41 Brookhart’s election website carefully hides his Hard Right connections; COP is never mentioned, and the PAC only in passing.42 His platform calls to “restore local control of natural resources,” and he calls himself a “Constitutional Conservative” while making various appeals to the Constitution in a manner consistent with Patriot views.43

COP member Pete Sharp is also running for Crook County commission. He has said, “With my platform, I put God first,” and “I want to get back to the Constitution, which means less government, less control, and the government working for the people of the county.” He is also promoting Crook County invoking coordination status and hopes this will allow for more logging.44

In Douglas County, hardline Patriot movement activist J.D. Parks is running for county commission. He is a Three Percenter, an Oath Keeper, and a founding member of the Heirs of Patrick Henry—a member group of the Pacific Patriots Network.45 Parks’s election Facebook page posts typical movement propaganda and views; for example, in one post he says, “One of our two senators actually lives in New York. The other is a communist.”46 He was part of the Sugar Pine Mine action in 2015 and is forwarding a resolution to transfer federal lands to the state and county level.47

Kody Justus, who is running for Baker County commission, is another hardline Patriot movement activist. The coordinator of his county’s Oath Keepers group and Vice-Chair of the Baker County Republicans, Justus took his nine-year-old daughter with him when he brought supplies to the Malheur occupation this January, earning a mention in the New York Times.48 His campaign video promotes “aggressively engaging federal agencies through coordination and pursuing the transfer of public lands to local control.”49 Justus’s website includes links to groups with Patriot movement-style politics like CSPOA, the Tenth Amendment Center, and Defend Rural America. Justus also attended the Rural Lives Matter rally in Halfway, Oregon on February 6, 2016—one of the first post-Malheur occupation support events.50

Sheriff’s Deputy John Hoopes is running for Baker County Sheriff in an election that will be decided in November. Hoopes is a CSPOA member, visited the Malheur occupation, and attended the Rural Lives Matter event in Halfway. 51 Hoopes’s Facebook page promotes talks by sovereign citizen lawyer KrisAnne Hall and CSPOA founder Richard Mack.52 In his answers to a 2015 candidate questionnaire, Hoopes said he wants Baker County to control public lands and that as sheriff he will refuse to enforce laws that “support gun registration or confiscation” because he believes they are unconstitutional.53

Last, Mandi Jacobs, a Patriot movement activist, is a write-in candidate to be a Republican Party Precinct Committee Person in Douglas County’s Precinct 17—despite the fact that she has not been registered as a party member for the required period to be eligible.54 Her run for this low-level elected position is of note because it represents part of a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to taking over political institutions—an approach which can be seen reflected across the Patriot movement’s strategies.

The Patriot movement in Oregon has shown that it can grab headlines through the use of armed action. It will be seen this May and November whether it can capture political power at the ballot box as well. If they successfully gain county-level seats across the state, we can expect confrontations around federal land transfer, nullification, and coordination. These actions will attempt to short-circuit existing democratic structures and circumvent federal laws (especially environmental restrictions), and Patriot movement-affiliated county officials will help create a welcoming environment for further right-wing paramilitary activities in the state.


Unless otherwise noted, all online citations are accessible as of April 19, 2016.

1) The origin of this idea is usually attributed to Posse Comitatus, a decentralized Christian White supremacist group. See Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

2) There is an actual federal rule called “coordination,” but it has a different meaning, and does not grant counties the right to dictate land-use decisions to federal agencies. See Montana Human Rights Network, “Recycled County Supremacy Gains Traction, Lacks Legal Basis,” November 2, 2012,

3) Kenneth S. Stern, A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 125.

4) Rachel Tabachnick, “Profile on the Right: Oath Keepers,” Political Research Associates, April 23, 2015,; Political Research Associates, “Profiles on the Right: Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” November 22, 2013,; Spencer Sunshine, “Profiles on the Right: Three Percenters,” Political Research Associates, January 5, 2016,

5) “Partners,” Pacific Patriots Network,; OPB Staff, “New Armed Group Enters Harney County, Meets With Sheriff,” OPB, January 9, 2016,

6) Stern, A Force Upon the Plain, 212–17.

7) CSPOA, “The Leadership—CSPOA Council of Sheriffs, Peace Officers and Public Officials,”, archive from August 20, 2015; Jonathan Thompson, “The rise of the Sagebrush Sheriffs,” High Country News, February 2, 2016,; George Plaven, “Grant County sheriff demands coordination with Forest Service,” East Oregonian, October 9, 2015,; Les Zaitz, “State licensing board seeks investigation of Grant County sheriff who met militants,” Oregonian/OregonLive, February 18, 2016,

8) John Sepulvado, “Oregon Lawmaker Says Roseburg Shooting Prompted ‘Fact-Finding’ Visit To Armed Occupation,” OPB, March 20, 2016, The refuge trip that Representative Heard went on was organized by COWS (Coalition of Western States), but he says that he is not a member of the group.

9) The Facebook account of the Oath Keepers of Oregon posted, “Every Politician should be supporting the miner’s rights or else they are violating their oath. At least Oregon state Rep. Carl Wilson Supports Miners’ Access To Due Process:,” May 15, 2015, The Josephine County Oath Keepers also posted Representative Wilson’s press release on their site; see “Rep. Carl Wilson Supports Miners’ Access To Due Process,” April 28, 2015,

10) Joshua Dillen, “County, Forest Service discuss coordination,” Baker City Herald, October 2, 2015,; Jayson Jacoby, “Message Delivered,” Baker City Herald, February 8, 2016,

11) Nicole Montesano, “Commissioners urged to help calm Malheur tension,” Yamhill Valley News Register, January 28, 2016,–1454029836–20827–. Starrett is also a former Constitution Party official and candidate.

12) Tay Wiles, “Sugar Pine Mine, the other standoff,” High Country News, February 2, 2016,

13) “Senator Kim Thatcher—‘I will not comply!’—SB 941 Protests” (video), YouTube, uploaded May 31, 2015,; “Bill Post—‘I will not comply’ SB 941” (video), YouTube, uploaded May 31, 2015,; “Mike Nearman—‘I will not comply’—SB 941” (video), uploaded May 31, 2015, For Vanderboegh, see “We Will Not Comply Rally—Salem, Oregon—May 30, 2015” (video), YouTube, uploaded July 3, 2015, His call for “civil war” is around 57:15, and comments on Governor Kate Brown around 1:04:40.

14) For example, he is speaking to the Douglas County Oath Keepers on April 15, 2016 as publicized on their Facebook page, March 22, 2016:

15) “Strategies to Return Local Control to the Communities and Voters of Oregon,” Bruce Cuff for Governor of Oregon,, accessed April 17, 2016.

16) “Oregon is a Sovereign State!,” Bruce Cuff for Governor of Oregon,, accessed April 17, 2016.

17) KOIN 6 News Staff, “Shouts of support, waves for jailed Bundy brothers,” KOIN6, March 5, 2016,; “BLM Protest Wardo interviews Bruce Cuff and J D Parks Oregon 3/26” (video), YouTube, uploaded April 1, 2016, See starting at 2:27.

18) “Oregon 2016 Election Center,” Washington Times,

19) Montana Human Rights Network, The Constitution Party of Montana: The Radical Right Wing’s Collision with Mainstream Politics, third edition, 2009 (originally 2000),, 9–13, 63–64.

20) “Platform of the Constitution Party of Oregon,” The Constitution Party of Oregon,; see also, Constitution Party of Oregon’s Facebook post from January 10, 2016,

21) Oregon Secretary of State, “November 4, 2014, General Election, Official Abstract of Votes,”

22) “Josephine County Republicans Present Rich Wyatt and Kevin Starrett,” 2015,; Dennis Linthicum, “BLM v Hammond—A Blind Pimple Or Worse?,” Dirt Road Economist, November 23, 2015,; “Absolute Power is not Easily Tamed,” Dirt Road Economist, January 28, 2016,

23) “Oregon—Summary Vote Results,” May 21, 2014,

24) “March 2016” calendar,; “Meet with Jo Rae Perkins,” Facebook event,, accessed April 1, 2016; screenshot in possession of author. The 912 Project was founded by Glenn Beck.

25) Ian K. Kullgren, “Election 2016: Who’s running for office in Oregon? Portland? We’ve got your list right here,” Oregonian/OregonLive, March 09, 2016,

26) “Issues,”, accessed April 17, 2016.

27) “Charmaign ‘Sis’ Edwards for Harney County Commissioner,” March 30, 2016,; Karina Brown, “Residents Mixed on Bundy Militia’s Takeover,” Courthouse News Service, January 7, 2016,

28) We the People—United Individuals of these States United: Coalition of Western States (COWS), Pacific Patriot Network (PPN), Bundy Family and Supporters, Oregon Oath Keepers, Idaho III%, Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, Oregon Tactical, Oregon Bearded Bastards, Liberty Watch Washington, Nevada Committee for Full Statehood, Rural Heritage Preservation Project, Liberty For All (LFA), etc., “NOTICE: Redress of Grievance – December 11, 2015,”

29) Brown, “Residents Mixed on Bundy Militia’s Takeover.”

30); see February 21, 2016 post.

31) Caitlin Dickson, “In Oregon occupation, residents choose sides on social media—and things get ugly,” Yahoo News, January 11, 2016,–residents-choose-sides-on-social-media%E2%80%94and-things-get-ugly-202711268.html; “About,”

32) Trent Loos’ Podcast, “Loos Tales for Jan 11, 2016 Anna Jo Surber works at the The Narrows,” January 10, 2016, See around 1:40, 3:00, and 3:38.

33) “Anna Jo Surber Running For Commissioner In Harney County Oregon— #OregonFront,” January 26, 2016, See around 7:44.

34) Bill Morlin, “‘Constitutional Sheriff’ Richard Mack Hoping to Capitalize on Oregon Standoff,” February 16, 2016,

35) Tay Wiles and Jonathan Thompson, “Who’s who inside and on the outskirts of the Malheur occupation,” High Country News, January 11, 2016,

36) Josephine County Voters’ Pamphlet: Official Primary Election, May 17, 2016,

37) An archived COP website says, “On September 12, 2009 two area citizens were part of the largest peaceful protest march in the history of our nation. We now recognize the Tea Party on 9/12/2009 as the genesis of COP.” See

38) “Ken Taylor,”; “Crook County,”

39) Jason Chaney, “Brookhart again running for judge,” Central Oregonian, November 24, 2015,; “Primary Election, May 15, 2012—Official Final Results”

40) Aaron West, “Three running for Crook County judge,” The Bulletin (Bend), April 5, 2016,

41) Aaron West, “Crook County residents form a PAC to make a land use plan,” The Bulletin (Bend), February 29, 2016,

42) Brookhart for Crook County Judge, 2016,

43) “Platform,” Brookhart for Crook County Judge, 2016,; “About Me,” Brookhart for Crook County Judge, 2016,

44) Jason Chaney, “Sharp joins county commissioner race,” Central Oregonian, December 4, 2015,; Aaron West, “7 up for open seat in Crook County,” The Bulletin (Bend), March 26, 2016,

45) Carisa Cegavske, “Susan Morgan critic J.D. Parks running for her commission seat,” NR Today, February 9, 2016,, accessed April 1, 2016. Copy in possession of author.

46) “J.D. Parks for Douglas County Commissioner,”

47) “J.D. Parks—Bringing the Constitution back at the local Level,” February 24, 2016, One of Parks’s opponents is Gary Leif, who visited the Malheur occupation, but came away saying he did not support it. See Carisa Cegavske, “County commissioner candidate Gary Leif meets with protesters at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” NRToday, January 22, 2016,

48) Gina Perkins, “Coordinator of County’s Oath Keeper Group Running for Commissioner,” Record-Courier, January 28, 2016,!Coordinator-of-Countys-Oath-Keeper-Group-Running-for-Commissioner/cg4a/56aa60a60cf2c295f1f2674f; Julie Turkewitzjan, “Fervor in Oregon Compound and Fear Outside It,” New York Times, January 12, 2016,

49) “Kody Justus for Baker County Commission,”

50) Kody Justus for Baker County Commission,; Jayson Jacoby, “Message Delivered, Baker City Herald, February 8, 2016,

51) A February 19, 2016, comment on a February 20 “Hoopes 4 Sheriff” Facebook post says he has joined CSPOA; Jayson Jacoby, “Message Delivered, Baker City Herald, February 8, 2016,

52) “John ‘Hoopes 4 Sheriff,’”

53) “Sheriff candidates interviewed: John Hoopes’ answers,” March 13, 2015,

54) Facebook post, March 15, 2016;

The Christian Right’s Favorite New Target: North Carolina Isn’t Alone

A slate of anti-LGBTQ laws and policies is sweeping across the country with transgender and gender-nonconforming people squarely in the crosshairs. While violence and oppression continue to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of trans people, as of this writing at least 44 anti-trans bills have been proposed in 16 states this year, aimed at putting an already vulnerable community at even greater risk for harassment, abuse, ostracization, and discrimination.

But this attack isn’t restricted to the Bible Belt, nor is it limited to GOP-dominated cities and states. Trans people are being systematically targeted across the country as part of a nationally coordinated effort led by a coalition of Christian Right powerhouses – organizations that have been plotting this campaign since long before even the concept of a “post-marriage equality moment” existed.

Mickyel “Micky” Bradford, a regional organizer with the Transgender Law Center, protests HB2 outside of the governor's mansion. Image courtesy of Ryan Lavalley

Mickyel “Micky” Bradford, a regional organizer with the Transgender Law Center @ Southerners On New Ground (TLC@SONG), protests HB2 outside of the governor’s mansion. Image courtesy of Ryan Lavalley

Precariously situated at the end of the LGBT family, the “T” has often been neglected and/or forgotten by those on both the Right and the Left. Now, with the LGB portion of the queer umbrella experiencing increasing levels of legal acceptance, affirmation in the media, and economic access in the United States, the Right has cast their spotlight in the direction of those whom they’ve determined are still easily scapegoated; those who dare to continue resisting assimilation – trans and gender-nonconforming people.

Last week, North Carolina’s General Assembly approved a bill that was described by Sarah Preston, acting Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, as “the most extreme anti-LGBT bill in the nation.” House Bill 2 (HB2) invalidates the recent expansion of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals in the City of Charlotte, and additionally prevents all municipalities in the state from adding any new protections for LGBTQ people.

HB2 was introduced and passed in the span of a single day during a special session called expressly for the purpose of eliminating Charlotte’s expanded nondiscrimination ordinance (costing taxpayers $42,000). The ordinance in question would have (among other things) granted the right to transgender individuals to use public facilities that correspond to the gender with which they identify. In other words, this straightforward civil rights measure would have allowed a trans man (or, more simply put, a man) to utilize a men’s bathroom, and a trans woman (a woman) to use bathrooms designated for women.

Despite the valiant resistance of organizers, activists, faith leaders, and families from across the state (and the fact that, to date, there have been no cases in which a trans person has committed assault in a bathroom), anti-trans fear mongering ruled the day, and within hours of passing both the House and Senate, HB2 was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, R, who previously stated that Charlotte’s nondiscrimination policy would “create major public safety issues by putting citizens in possible danger from deviant actions by individuals taking improper advantage of a bad policy.”

Gov. McCrory’s words speak to the effectiveness of the massive coalition of national players behind this devastating blow to LGBTQ people in the State of North Carolina. Over the last several years, right-wing opponents to social justice have steadily honed their anti-trans tactics and rhetoric, and now we’re seeing the effects of their well-resourced, diligent campaigning.

Today's anti-trans attacks echo the "save our children themes" from Anita Bryant in the 1970s.

Today’s anti-trans attacks echo the “save our children themes” from Anita Bryant in the 1970s.

Led by Christian Right powerhouses like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Focus on the Family, and Family Research Council, this coalition aims to scare communities into believing that women and girls are in grave danger as a result of comprehensive civil rights legislation by falsely painting transgender people as deviant, dangerous, and sick. (If this sounds eerily familiar, recall that less than 40 years ago, this exact same rhetoric was applied in anti-gay witch hunts such as Anita Bryant’s infamous “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, which successfully repealed a county ordinance in Florida that prohibited discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in employment, housing, and public accommodations.)

Indeed, McCrory’s comments echo both the historic vitriol of the Christian Right of yesteryear and the distorted, anti-trans language that Bryant’s contemporaries are currently propagating around the country. Notably, McCrory’s rhetoric matches that of a letter he received on March 2, 2016 from John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC), reacting to the passage of Charlotte’s trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, demanding that the General Assembly call a special session to overturn it and “preempt any other municipality or county in the state from enacting a similar ordinance,” spoon-feeding McCrory the talking points needed to make it all happen.

SEE ALSO: When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

SEE ALSO: When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

It’s important to know that NCFPC isn’t just some obscure, local, “family values” operation. NCFPC is an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s policy arm, CitizenLink, a multi-million dollar operation that oversees a national network of 39 state-based “family policy councils” collectively committed to restricting access to abortion and reproductive justice, resisting efforts toward LGBTQ equality, and redefining religious freedom into a dangerous tool of oppression. In addition to providing strategic direction for its affiliates, CitizenLink also contributes financially. According to the most recently available IRS form 990s from both organizations, CitizenLink contributed nearly $170,000 to NCFPC in 2013, which amounts to over one third of NCFPC’s operating budget that year.

What’s also at play here is major backlash against the Obama administration’s expansion of Title IX protections in April 2014. Under the new guidelines, Title IX prohibits discrimination in publicly funded schools not only on the basis of sex, but also on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and disability.

In a press release issued last Wednesday, ACLU-NC flagged this element of potential harm caused by HB2, noting that in addition to eliminating protections for LGBTQ people, the bill “jeopardizes the more than $4.5 billion in federal funding that North Carolina receives for secondary and post-secondary schools under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, including discrimination against transgender students.”

This isn’t new news to the U.S. Right.

According to a report from the Human Rights Campaign, within months of the 2014 change, dozens of religious colleges and universities had applied for and been granted a “religious exemption” from the law. While the exact nature of the relationship is unclear, at least four of the qualifying schools cc’d the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on their exemption request letters.

Later that year, ADF—one of the Christian Right’s most powerful legal institutions, and a longtime partner of Focus on the Family and CitizenLink—would take on an even more prominent and aggressive role in the anti-trans Title IX pushback. In December 2014, ADF sent emails to public school districts nationwide encouraging use of their model “Student Physical Privacy Policy,” which provides guidelines for how schools can supposedly “protect” [cisgender] students in areas such as bathrooms and locker rooms. In reality, the model policy effectively encodes trans-exclusionary guidelines and subjects transgender students to further scrutinization, shame, and interrogation when it comes to their privacy.

SEE ALSO: Alliance Defending Freedom: The Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools.

SEE ALSO: Alliance Defending Freedom: The Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools.

What’s playing out on the ground in places like North Carolina, Tennessee, South Dakota, Washington State, and in school boards across the country isn’t some sort of isolated, homegrown scheme, and it isn’t the result of trans and gender-nonconforming people seeking to harm or threaten women and girls. These anti-trans bills are part of a nationally-coordinated, proactive campaign that seeks to deploy dangerous transphobic myths and rhetoric in order to mobilize conservatives and preserve a gender essentialist status quo that ultimately harms us all.

To join in the chorus of social justice advocates speaking out against HB2, please consider signing this petition from our friends at ACLU Action, calling on Gov. McCrory to repeal the law.


TONIGHT: What Happens When Terroristic Threats Come From Someone Wealthy & White?

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Hutson is the author of a forthcoming article in The Public Eye magazine fully examining the case of David Lenio and the disparate treatment of offenders from different backgrounds and ethnicities by the criminal justice system.

In the wake of a controversial decision this month to drop the felony intimidation charge against David Joseph Lenio—a 29-year-old White Nationalist who tweeted threats last year to shoot up a grade school in Kalispell, Montana, and “put two in the head of a rabbi,” then retrieved a weapons cache—the Investigation Discovery channel will premier the next installment of “Hate in America,” which explores the growing movement of strong-man worshiping populists, nativists, and armed anti-government militants across the country through the lens of Montana’s Flathead Valley.


In “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” which premiers Thursday, March 24 at 8pm ET / /7pm CT, Emmy Award-winning journalist Tony Harris introduces America to this beautiful valley nestled outside Glacier National Park.

The case of David Lenio is opening up many questions about the criminal justice system and White supremacy. Specifically, questions about how terroristic threats are treated when the person making them comes from a wealthy White background versus someone who is low-income or a person of color.

Armed and Ready

On December 30, 2014, the day he arrived in Montana, Lenio tweeted several times that he felt so angry at being economically disadvantaged that he wanted to “shoot up” a grade school in Kalispell. This short-order cook and snowboarder who falsely claimed to be destitute and homeless but who is actually the son of influential banker Remos Joseph Lenio, who co-founded the private investment bank Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids, blames a Jewish conspiracy for his sense of being disinherited from his economic birthright. He bragged that, in retaliation for his supposed life of poverty, he could kill more people than the 20 school kids and six adults who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Specific Threats

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Here is one of his tweets from the day he arrived in Kalispell, threatening Kalispell school children and teachers: “I David Lenio am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.” There are only five elementary schools in Kalispell.

From then until his arrest six weeks later, he obsessed about mass shootings and terrorist attacks – which he invariably claimed were hoaxes and false-flag operations perpetrated by Israel or the federal government.

By February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the American economy, stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. “USA needs a Hitler to rise to power and fix our #economy,” he tweeted, “and i’m about ready to give my life to the cause or just shoot a bunch of #kikes …”

Calling for a Chapel Hill-Style Mass Shooting of Jews

Lenio also seized on the February 10 murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to call for a Chapel Hill-style mass shooting of Jews in retaliation for those murders and for his sense of economic disempowerment. On February 13, he tweeted: “I think every jew on the planet deserves to be killed for what kikes have done to our #dollar and cost of living Killing jews > wage #slave.” He added, “Best way to counter the harm #jewish #politics is causing is #ChapelHillShooting styling [sic] killing of #jews til they get the hint & leave.”

“I bet I could get at least 12 unarmed sitting ducks if I decide to go on a killing spree in a #school,” he tweeted on February 12th. “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”

The same day, he tweeted, “What do you think costs more in most U.S. cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 100 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment,” he tweeted. Then he wrote: “What would I rather do? Be a #wage slave for the rest of my life or tell society fuck you & do your kids a favor by shooting up a #school?”

‘I Bet I’d Take Out At Least a Whole Classroom’

Two days later he expressed a desire to emulate the shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – in which a White man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting three Muslim students – Lenio wrote: “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it #Poverty is making me want to kill folks #mental health.”

The line between free speech and true threats is crossed when one goes beyond scapegoating and conspiracy theories to threaten the indiscriminate shooting of 30+ school kids and teachers, as well as threatening to put two bullets in the head of a rabbi (of which there are only two in the Flathead Valley) to salve a sense of economic grievance and to advance White supremacy. There is also reason to believe that Lenio planned to put his murderous ideas into action.

Police found that on February 15, just after I reported his threats to law enforcement, Lenio had retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from his storage locker. He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest – along with extra ammunition clips and jugs of urine.

The First Amendment protects unpopular, crude, and controversial speech. But First Amendment protection is not absolute. Certain speech acts, such as extortion, false advertising, and true threats which would make a reasonable person fear violence and take precautions are not protected. Nor should they be.

In the Lenio case, the threats resulted in a nationwide effort involving FBI, police, and sheriffs from three states. Flathead County schools contacted every parent to let them know that the schools had enacted a security plan to respond to the Twitter threats, and extra police and sheriff deputies were deployed to guard the schools. When parents received the calls, they were scared for their kids, as any parent would be. And, for the first time ever, the Flathead Valley’s synagogues hired security guards.

As Rabbi Fancine Green Roston and I  wrote in the Flathead Beacon, “Each of us writing this piece knows what it is to be threatened by Lenio. One of us (Francine) is one of only two Flathead Valley rabbis and has kids in the local schools. Lenio tweeted to the other of us (Jonathan) to ask where his kids go to school. Lenio crossed the line between hate speech and hate crime.” However, we presciently titled our op-ed “David Lenio Reloaded?” because the justice system was already bending over backward to show Lenio undue leniency—unlike other defendants.

In the “Hate in America” series, produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions for the Investigation Discovery channel, former CNN news anchor and Emmy-winning journalist Tony Harris teams with noted civil rights advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), to showcase stories from the organization’s files, including the David Lenio case, which SPLC’s HateWatch has reported on in detail.

Lingering Questions

Why did the justice system give David Lenio preferential treatment by releasing him into the custody of his wealthy banker dad without bail in July 2015? Why did the authorities fail to act when Lenio violated his release conditions at least 348 times in August 2015 even though 37 other Flathead County Detention Center residents had been rearrested for violating their release conditions? Why did the prosecutor and judge keep delaying the trial and finally agree to drop the felony charge of intimidation against him without any meaningful conditions? And what could be the significance of those jugs of urine in Lenio’s van? Those are topics about which I plan to write more extensively in the future.

The same week Lenio received a deferred prosecution, a 24-year-old mentally ill transient in Oregon (who actually was homeless, unlike Lenio, who merely pretended to be while enjoying expensive snowboarding jaunts in the nearby resort in Whitefish) got 18 months in prison for making Facebook threats against unnamed police officers. In the Oregon case, the offender, Timothy Loren McCoy Fleming, didn’t possess a real, working gun; he had an inoperable pellet gun. In contrast, Lenio had fetched a working semi-automatic pistol and a working semi-automatic rifle along with a busted bolt-action rifle and spare ammunition clips after making his threats specifically against a Kalispell grade school as well as threats to put “two in the head” of a rabbi, in a Montana valley where only two rabbis reside.

Meanwhile, here’s a Investigation Discovery channel finder. Don’t miss “Hate in America: A Town on Fire” tonight, March 24, at 8ET / 7CT.

Russian Social Conservatism, the U.S.-based WCF, & the Global Culture Wars in Historical Context


Click here a printable PDF.

Click here a printable PDF.

A Right-Wing International?

This article appears in the Winter 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

As the poll observer listened sympathetically, the rural priest diagnosed the root of Russia’s social problems in “the decay of all the old supports: religion, family, morality, the traditional way of life.”1 An election of representatives to the Russian State Duma was underway, and the man the bearded priest was talking to—Professor Sergei Bulgakov, an Orthodox Christian intellectual and future theologian—was observing the vote in Crimea. While the priest’s lament sounds like a textbook complaint of contemporary social conservatives, the year was 1912.

Russian Students Day in Saint-Petersburg, 2014. Photo by Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy via Flickr.

Russian Students Day in Saint-Petersburg, 2014. Photo by Saint-Petersburg Theological Academy via Flickr.

Social conservatives have been focusing on the family for a long time, and Russians have frequently been at the forefront of the fight for “traditional” values. In more recent times, Russian conservatives were central to the founding and operations of the World Congress of Families (WCF), a Christian-dominated inter-confessional coalition of right-wing activists from around the world dedicated to defending what they call “the natural family,” that is, a nuclear family consisting of a married man and woman and their children. When the coalition met for its ninth global conference this October in Salt Lake City, Utah, several Russian activists numbered among the speakers, including Alexey Komov.

Komov is WCF’s Regional Representative for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States; the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society’s representative to the United Nations; and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Commission on the Family and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood. He was in Utah to speak about “The Family in Europe—Past, Present, Future,”2 and during his presentation, he touted Russia’s leading role in the global “pro-family” movement today, emphasizing that the nation’s Communist past has given Russia and other Eastern European countries a taste of the dangers supposedly inherent in secularism, which “more naïve” Westerners might miss. As a result, he maintained, “Eastern Europe can really help our brothers in the West” to resist the “new totalitarianism” associated with “political correctness” and the sexual revolution.3

In addition, Fr. Maxim Obukhov, the director of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Family and Life, attended and received the 2015 Pro-Life Award for his longtime involvement in prominent Russian organizations that oppose abortion and promote the “natural family.”4

WCF IX represents an opportunity to consider the outsized role contemporary Russia plays in the global culture wars, with particular attention to two related questions. The first is whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent chill in U.S.-Russian relations represents any kind of turning point for the collaborative efforts between Russian and U.S. social conservatives, and particularly the impact of the removal of WCF’s official imprimatur from what would have been WCF VIII in Moscow, but instead became billed as an international forum called “Large Families: The Future of Humanity.” The second and more interesting question regarding the relationship between the U.S. and Russia with respect to the global culture wars was posed two years ago by Political Research Associates’ Cole Parke: “When it comes to the culture wars, who’s exporting and who’s importing?”5 As Komov’s words suggest, contemporary Russian conservatives certainly don’t see themselves as solely on the receiving end of this international movement.

It’s a mistake to think of U.S. and Russian social conservatives as having a one-way relationship, or to imagine Russian conservatism as confined to Russia itself.

Very important work has been done on the efforts of American social conservatives to export far right ideology in connection, for example, with Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill.6 It is also the case that U.S. social conservatives helped lay the foundations for resurgent social conservatism in post-Communist Eastern Europe and Russia. Russian Orthodox Christian journalist and commentator Xenia Loutchenko, who has researched some aspects of Russian-American collaborative culture warring efforts,7 assesses American influence in the early post-Soviet days as particularly important with respect to building the Russian anti-abortion movement (for which Fr. Maxim Obukhov was honored at WCF IX).

Nevertheless, as Loutchenko and I also discussed in an interview conducted in Moscow in May 2015,8 it would be a mistake to think of the relationship between U.S. and Russian social conservatives as something of one-way influence, or to look at Russian social conservatism as essentially confined to Russia itself.9 Seriously considering Russia’s influence on international social conservatism, both historically and in our own time, presents new ways of thinking about the global culture wars—as well as important insights for how progressive activists might strategically resist the international Right’s global encroachment on human rights.

Russian Religious Conservatism in Historical Context

It’s no coincidence that the idea to found WCF was hatched in Russia in 1995, as the result of discussions between Carlson, then president of the Rockford, Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, and Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov, two professors of sociology at Lomonosov Moscow State University.10 Nor is it coincidental that Carlson was heavily inspired in the first place by the Russian-born conservative sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, longtime head of the Sociology Department at Harvard, where Sorokin worked from 1930-1959.11 Throughout his years in the West, Sorokin consistently exhibited concern about the ostensible crisis of Western culture, which he linked to the “collapse of the family” in books such as his 1947 Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics, a System of General Sociology and his 1956 The American Sex Revolution.

Sorokin’s work represented a continuation of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European attempts to defend a role for the realization of spiritual values—in some cases explicitly for Christianity—in society and governance. This discourse was developed, with substantial Russian participation and influence, in response to revolution, secularization, and what I have described elsewhere as the “perceived cultural threat of nihilism.”12

Guiding this fear was the idea that, absent absolute values grounded in unchanging religious truth, human morality will decay and society will descend into chaos. Sexual “permissiveness” is of particular concern, because it supposedly indicates a reversion to an animalistic nature that only higher values are capable of countering. As the fin-de-siècle Russian Christian philosopher and apologist Prince Evgeny Nikolaevich Trubetskoi put it, “Faith in the ideal is that which makes man human.”13 Similar sentiments, including in the writings of Trubetskoi and Bulgakov, were often tied to the concern that in a society without prevailing spiritual values, the state will be elevated to the status of a god, an idol that would encroach utterly on human freedom. As the fictional revolutionary conspirator Shigalev put it in Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel Demons, “Beginning with absolute freedom I conclude with absolute despotism. And I would add that apart from my solution to the social question, there can be no other.”

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow. Photo by Marco Fieber via Flickr.

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow. Photo by Marco Fieber via Flickr.

Christian critics of 20th-century totalitarianism advocated the realization of religious values in society and statecraft on precisely these grounds, arguing that godlessness would inevitably lead to tyranny by making the state into an idol. T. S. Eliot, for example, argued in a 1939 series of lectures that a critical secular liberalism was inherently unstable—it would have to be replaced by something with substantive content, and if that something were not religion, then it would be the “pagan” fascism of Germany or Italy, or the Communism of the Soviet Union.14 While Eliot referred to the French Neo-Thomist theologian and personalist philosopher Jacques Maritain as an influence, we know that Maritain was heavily involved in dialogue with Russian exiles in Paris,15 not least the Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, who had made a very similar argument to Eliot’s in his 1924 The New Middle Ages (translated into English in 1933 with the title The End of Our Time). Berdyaev would exert considerable influence on American understandings of Russian history and on religious anti-Communism.16 Meanwhile, the refrain about the state becoming an idol has become a staple of conservative defenses of “religious freedom.” As Tucker Carlson put it in April 2015, in defense of the supposed right of businesses not to hire atheists, “If there’s no God, then the highest authority is government.”17

But to return to Berdyaev and his relationship to the contemporary Russian Right, it is important to note that he was not only an advocate of a religious society, but also of a kind of Russian national messianism. That is, he (along with Bulgakov and others) believed in a particular Providential calling for Russia, and, while opposing the Bolsheviks, they looked forward to a future in which a spiritually renewed Russia would have an important role to play in reviving the Christian roots of European civilization.18 The key point here, even more than any specific understanding of family relations, is the idea of a special role for Russia in the world’s moral progress—an idea that, despite the intellectual contortions that thinkers like Berdyaev and Bulgakov went through in attempts to avoid charges of chauvinism and nationalism, all too easily play into a sense of Russian exceptionalism: a sense that Russia represents a morally superior civilization.

With or without claiming inherent moral superiority, in any case, there is a clear claim here that Russia has a spiritual mission to enlighten other nations. Historically, this claim is rooted in Slavophilism, a nineteenth-century Russian form of nationalist thinking that asserted that Russia had a special path of development and represented a more holistic, harmonious, moral civilization than that of the Latin West. Instead of the West’s calculation, capitalism, individual rights, contracts, and “rationalism,” Russia had “sobornost.” A nearly untranslatable term, sobornost was invoked by Aleksey Khomyakov and other Slavophiles to mean a kind of collective social harmony in which individuals realize themselves organically as a part of the community, a concept that was meant to contrast with the individualism that supposedly characterized the West.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it an upsurge in interest in Russian religious and émigré thought, already known to Soviet dissidents in samizdat (the underground reproduction of censored publications across the Communist bloc). In the 1990s, there was a widespread sense that perhaps these thinkers had preserved a more authentic form of Russian thinking and culture. Russian nationalism was on the rise—its official suppression had been a source of tension in the USSR—and some Russians gravitated to the messianic conceptions of intellectuals like Bulgakov and Berdyaev, or the much more radically conservative monarchist Ivan Ilyin, for ways to conceptualize Russian greatness. And that greatness could not be conceptualized apart from a mission that was larger than Russia itself.

Along with post-Communist concerns about a “demographic winter”—the idea that the West is suffering a “birth dearth” of too few babies as a result of secular values and the embrace of progressive sexual mores19—the Russian discourse of moral mission and the superiority of Christian values to those of the “decadent” West has played a key role in the resurgence of social conservatism in post-Soviet Russian society. It should be noted that this discourse is essentially imperial; Russian concerns about public morality have never been only about Russia, but have always been bound up with considerations of the role that Russia should play in the wider world. One of the most influential exponents of this exceptionalist discourse today is the neo-Eurasianist Alexander Dugin.20

Perhaps feeling betrayed by the middle class his policies had helped create, Putin took a populist, nationalist turn, identifying himself more closely with the Orthodox Church and expecting its absolute loyalty in return.

These days, these sensibilities get a boost from Russian political leaders as well. Not only has Dugin had Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s ear,21 but Putin also sent the leadership of the currently-ruling United Russia Party books by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian religious philosophers Vladimir Solovyov, Berdyaev, and Ilyin as New Year’s presents in 2014. These three intellectuals had varying approaches to theology and politics—the Christian socialist Berdyaev and the monarchist Ilyin hated each other—but all of them advocated the integration of religious values in society and governance.22 In his third term in office, Putin has worked very closely with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, and Russian plutocrats to promote social conservatism at home and abroad. The latter include figures such as “God’s oligarch,” Konstantin Malofeev,23 the successful founder of Marshall Capital Partners who is known for investing his fortune into Orthodox Christian and social conservative initiatives, such as the Russian Society of Philanthropists for the Protection of Mothers and Children, the Safe Internet League, and the YouTube channel “Tsargrad TV,” which Loutchenko has described as an attempt to build a Russian FOX News.24 It also included former Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin. (Yakunin is on the U.S. sanctions list for his closeness to President Putin, while Malofeev has been sanctioned by the European Union in response to accusations from the Ukrainian government that he was financing the rebels in Donbas.) This elite backing lends considerable oomph to Russian social conservatives’ international efforts, making it all the more important for advocates of human rights to be aware of them.

Russia’s Hard Right Turn

Since the end of 2011, when tens of thousands of Russians participated in mass protests against election fraud, Russian social conservatism’s star has risen within Russian circles of power. The late-2011 protests continued into 2012, ahead of the election of Putin to a third term as president. Perhaps feeling betrayed by the middle class his policies had helped create, representatives of whom made up the bulk of the protesters, Putin took a populist, nationalist turn, identifying himself more closely with the Orthodox Church and expecting its absolute loyalty in return. This became abundantly clear that February, when members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot famously demonstrated in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, performing their “Punk Prayer” to condemn Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for backing Putin’s candidacy. (Three members of the collective were sentenced to two years in penal colonies for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”—one was freed on probation—with the vocal support of some U.S. conservatives like Concerned Women for America’s Janice Shaw Crouse.25 Two would emerge to international celebrity.)

"Enough is enough - Open your mouth!" demonstration against homophobia in Russia. Photo by Marco Fieber via Flicker.

“Enough is enough – Open your mouth!” demonstration against homophobia in Russia. Photo by Marco Fieber via Flicker.

The “Punk Prayer” performance led to new legislation, enacted in June 2013, that made it a crime to insult religious believers’ feelings. But the law was just one expression of what Russian political commentator Alexander Morozov has called a “conservative revolution,” marked by populist rhetoric scapegoating political opponents and the LGBTQ community, which began with Putin’s third term.26 There was also the Dima Yakovlev Law, Russia’s ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, which passed the Russian State Duma and Federation Council in late December 2012 and took effect on January 1, 2013. The Russian president’s children’s rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, pushed hard for this law, promoting it not only on the grounds of individual cases of abuse and neglect involving Russian children adopted by Americans, but also on the basis of opposition to potential adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples.27 While this law could hardly have been well-liked by many American social conservatives—Russia was a popular country for American evangelicals seeking to adopt foreign children—National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown actually joined a delegation of French members of the National Front in Moscow, where he encouraged the passage of the law because it would keep Russian children from going to countries that allow same-sex couples to adopt.28

June 2013 then saw the passage of Russia’s federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values,” popularly known as the “anti-gay propaganda law,” which bars vaguely defined “propaganda” of “non-traditional” sexual relations to minors, effectively making it illegal to provide LGBTQ teenagers with life-saving information.29 Members of the United Russia Party quickly fell in line with the changes originating at the top, and so opposition to such moves was eliminated from the political center amid increasing rhetoric about ‘national traitors’ and ‘fifth columnists.’ In Morozov’s view, the Russian political center is now “full of supporters of global ‘conservative revolution.’”30

Meanwhile, direct Russian government collaboration with the Orthodox Church has proceeded apace in matters of both domestic and foreign policy. Pavel Astakhov’s position on “children’s rights” is actually an essentially radical doctrine of state non-interference in family matters—that is, despite staggeringly high rates of domestic abuse in Russia, he is opposed to any legal enshrining of the term “domestic abuse” on the grounds that it is an affront to the sacrality of the (“natural”) family and paves the way for undue state interference in parents disciplining their children. In this respect, Astakhov’s official pronouncements parrot the ideas of the far right Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, head of the ROC’s Commission on Family Matters and the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, who frequently has Astakhov’s ear.31

WCF moscow russia logoAs Sergei Chapnin  has astutely observed, the ROC has coordinated with government propagandists to promote patriotism and traditional values. Chapnin writes, “Beyond liturgy and piety, other traditions were revived: respect for the family, opposition to abortion,32 the banning of homosexual practice and propaganda. These measures are seen as asserting traditional Russian mores in opposition to the decadence of the West.”33

But Russian conservatism isn’t just defensive. As Chapnin explains, there’s an imperial element as well:

The Church has taken on a complex ideological significance over the last decade, not least because of the rise of the concept of Russkiy Mir, or “Russian World.” This way of speaking presumes a fraternal coexistence of the Slavic peoples—Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian—in a single “Orthodox Civilization.” It is a powerful archetype. It is an image of unity that appeals to Russians, because it gives them a sense of a larger destiny and supports the imperial vision that increasingly characterizes Russian politics.

This imperial ethos was certainly on display in what would have been WCF’s eighth annual meeting in 2014, when the World Congress of Families had planned to head back to its birthplace in Russia. Those plans, however, took a different turn.

Global Social Conservatism in Putin’s Third Term – A Right-Wing International?

Prior to the annexation of Crimea, Putin had received a substantial amount of praise from representatives of the U.S. Religious Right, even if some mistrusted his KGB past. President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin Graham, for example, could not resist praising Putin for the passage of Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, declaring that Russia was acting more morally on this issue than the United States, despite his reservations about Putin’s Soviet background.34 American Christian culture warriors also sometimes took credit for Russia’s conservative legislative onslaught. For example, Scott Lively, a Christian Right author and activist who is currently being sued for crimes against humanity for his involvement with the Uganda “kill the gays” bill and who has traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe on more than one occasion, claiming credit for the passage of the anti-gay “propaganda” law.35

Despite examples of claims to have exported their initiatives to Russia, however, U.S. social conservatives also frequently recognized Russia’s agency and leadership in global social conservatism. WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs minced no words when he reiterated the Russian messianic trope described above, declaring on End Times Radio in June 2013, “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.”36 Likewise, it was not an affect, or mere diplomacy, when American anti-LGBTQ crusader Paul Cameron proclaimed to the Russian State Duma that he had come “to thank the Russian people, the State Duma, and President Putin… in the name of the entire Christian world” for Russia’s active legal repression of LGBTQ rights.37

A few months after Cameron’s visit to Russia, however, it became more complicated for Russian and U.S. social conservatives to unite, making it momentarily possible to hope that international tensions might hamper the effectiveness of the global culture wars. In our interview in May 2015, Loutchenko and I speculated that 2014 might have represented a turning point in this regard. Although subsequent events have shown that many American social conservatives are more than willing to work with Russia, when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the world at large reacted with alarm, and the conservative “pro-family” world became divided. WCF had planned to go back to Russia that coming September for its eighth conference, but Putin’s brand had now become toxic to enough conservatives to make this difficult, even apart from any fear of the possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia. WCF withdrew its official sponsorship from the event, releasing a statement explaining that their withdrawal was made necessary by practical considerations, but which also went out of its way to praise Russian churches and individuals for their “leadership role in the fight to preserve life, marriage, and the natural family at home and as part of the international pro-family movement.” It added, “The World Congress of Families takes no position on foreign affairs, except as they affect the natural family.”38 Other social conservative groups were not so sympathetic. Concerned Women for America pulled out of the event altogether, with its CEO and president Penny Nance declaring that her organization did not “want to appear to be giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin.”39 (Subsequently, articles in the conservative journals First Things40 and American Conservative41 have warned against the religious nationalism of Putin’s “Corrupted Orthodoxy” or “Orthodox Terrorism.”)

WCF Managing Director Larry Jacobs minced no words when he reiterated the Russian messianic trope, declaring, “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.”

It wasn’t that CWA or other social conservatives who turned against Russia now objected to Russia’s hard anti-LGBTQ line, of course. It was that the annexation of territory in violation of international law revived Cold War era right-wing perceptions of Russia as a threatening state that is not to be trusted. (In this regard, it should not be forgotten that American Christians have missionary ties to Ukraine, which is also a popular country for U.S. adoptions.) Nevertheless, the American leaders of WCF stuck by their Russian partners. The meeting went forward, but not as an official WCF conference. Instead, the conference was titled “Large Families: The Future of Humanity.” U.S. WCF leaders remained intimately involved, with Communications Director Don Feder and Managing Director Jacobs on the organizing committee.42 The event depended for its financing primarily on Russian oligarchs Yakunin and Malofeev.

Larry Jacobs at a WCF presentation, 2012. Photo by via Flickr.

Larry Jacobs at a WCF presentation, 2012. Photo by via Flickr.

Meanwhile, the lack of international approval for the renamed WCF VIII most likely emboldened Russian social conservatives in their claim to global leadership in the fight against abortion and LGBTQ rights—a claim that WCF’s American leaders and their fellow conservative comrades, apparently untroubled by Russia’s increasing anti-Westernism, had already recognized. For example, some Russian speakers highlighted the changed circumstances of the conference as proof that Russia was a global leader in tackling problems other countries wouldn’t face. As one of the first speakers, Duma deputy Yelena Mizulina, who authored the anti-gay “propaganda law,” proudly announced, an event like this one, which took place in the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (where the Pussy Riot protest took place), most likely could not take place in Europe or the U.S. in their current climates.

Last year’s WCF in Salt Lake City may belie Mizulina’s statement to some extent—WCF IX demonstrated a clear attempt to tone down Hard Right rhetoric43—but her claim matters. To Russian and U.S. social conservatives, a key takeaway from the forum was the impression that, while Russia is very happy to be working with foreigners in the fight for the so-called “natural family,” it is Russia that is at the helm. WCF’s Larry Jacobs admitted as much when he stated at the event, “I think Russia is the hope for the world right now.” Invoking Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jacobs went on to explain that since Russia had defeated Marxism, it could help the West defeat “cultural Marxism” today—a nearly identical claim as that which Alexey Komov made this past fall at WCF’s meeting in Salt Lake City.44

And Russia is clearly pushing forward with this agenda on the international stage, with Komov in a leadership role. Take, for example, Russia’s role in securing the passage of a UN Human Rights Council resolution on “Protection of the Family,” which defined the family “as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children.”45 This resolution, sponsored in part by Russia—whose influence at the UN is bolstered by its permanent seat and veto on the UN Security Council—was clearly understood, by both supporters and opponents, as an attack on individual rights and a win for supporters of the “natural family”46 (which implicitly excludes families headed by same-sex couples). Komov has bragged of his part in delegations to the UN, which included Russian political leaders Mizulina and Astakhov, in which they pursued similar goals.47

Meanwhile, when I spoke with Russian commentator and researcher Xenia Loutchenko in May, she highlighted Russia’s success in attracting members of the European Right, mentioning that the French National Front recently took millions of dollars in loans from a Russian bank, in what many saw as a reward for the National Front’s support for the annexation.48 She also described Yakunin’s World Public Forum, which hosts an annual “Dialogue of Civilizations” in Greece, as a “right-wing international.” The phrasing might be hyperbolic, with its invocation of the Soviet-dominated Comintern, or Communist International, which was dedicated to spreading Communism around the world from the 1920s-40s. Nevertheless, drawing a comparison between the Comintern and the contemporary global culture wars, in which Russia is playing a leading role that is far from entirely derivative, makes a valid point. We will not be able to grasp Russia’s role in the global culture wars if we persist in treating Russia as essentially a recipient of America’s exported culture wars, and not an independent actor, and even exporter, in its own right.

The recent Cold War past makes it difficult for some, on both the Left and the Right, to imagine contemporary Russia as a conservative state vying for the role of international leader in global right-wing politics. Retired NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen’s recent writings, for example, have desperately tried to salvage a vision of post-Soviet Russia as somehow left-wing. While Cohen is not wrong to perceive continuity between Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, it is important to note that the relevant ideological continuity extends further back, with its origins lying in the messianic discourse of moral superiority associated with twentieth- and twenty-first century Russian intellectuals and, before them, with Russian Slavophilism, which intellectual historian Andrzej Walicki once described, quite accurately, as “a conservative utopia.”49 During the Soviet Union’s seven decades of existence, the conservative version of this Russian messianism persisted in the Russian diaspora and among Soviet dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, projected its own purported moral superiority as the ostensible vanguard of socialism, a system understood as far more just than Western capitalism. Just as the official Soviet, left-wing version of this ideology of moral superiority attracted its share of fellow travelers, so has, and does, the now resurgent right-wing brand.

After Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, U.S. paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan suggested that God is on Russia’s side now.

This right-wing iteration of moral exceptionalism entails a belief that Russia was given a Providential calling to revive the Christian roots of European, or more broadly Western, civilization. Despite (or perhaps because of) the sense of moral superiority of Russian civilization, it has proven irresistible to certain Western Russophiles—whether late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British religious conservatives, or, fast forwarding to the present, American “paleo-conservative” Pat Buchanan.50 Notably, it was after Putin annexed Crimea on March 18, 2014, that Buchanan strongly suggested that God is on Russia’s side now.51 Like Buchanan, the American leadership in WCF seems prepared to see Russia as doing the Lord’s work, and therefore to go on working closely with Russian social conservatives despite tense international relations and concerns about Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.52 What’s more, Franklin Graham has lost all compunction about praising Putin, and, after a recent visit to Moscow during which he met with Patriarch Kirill, seems to be entirely on board with the idea that Russia is “protecting traditional Christianity.” In turn, Patriarch Kirill has declared American Protestants and Catholics who defend the “natural family” to be “confessors of the faith.” Such propagandistic statements, meant to impact U.S. public opinion, might be construed as Russia exporting its culture wars to us, as leaders of the “godless” West.53 In this regard, it is also worth noting that the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate is expanding its presence in Paris, with plans for the construction of a new cathedral that will include a cultural center, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year.54 It is also important, of course, that Russia is exporting its culture wars in what the Russian state considers its more immediate sphere of influence, with Astakhov turning up at regional WCF conferences in countries such as Georgia, and а Russian-model anti-LGBTQ “propaganda” initiative, withdrawn at least for the present, having been recently considered in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament55

The events of 2014 may have tempered enthusiasm for Russia among some on the U.S. Right, but for many of those dedicated to the pursuit of an anti-human rights, “pro-family” agenda at home and abroad, partnership with Russian social conservatives will continue. If we wish to understand the effect of such partnerships, however, we must stop looking at Russian social conservatism as a kind of American import. We should take steps not to underestimate the global significance of Russian culture warring in its own right. While there is a complex transnational intellectual history at play here, Russian actors are more than capable of damaging LGBTQ and women’s rights all on their own, independent of U.S. actors. If we consider Russian involvement in WCF as entirely derivative of U.S. leadership, we may well miss the full import of the new Russia-led “right-wing international,” which would hamper the ability of human rights advocates to counter its influence.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Scott Lively is “on trial” for crimes against humanity. The legal proceedings against Mr. Lively have not yet reached the trial stage.

About the Author

Christopher Stroop (@C_Stroop) earned a Ph.D. in Russian history and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities from Stanford University. Currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the History Department at the University of South Florida, Christopher is also a senior research fellow in the School of Public Policy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration in Moscow and editor of the academic journal State, Religion and Church.


1 Sergei Bulgakov, “Na vyborakh. Iz dnevnika” [Observing the Elections: From my Journal], Russkaia mysl’ [Russian Thought] 33:11 (1912), 185-92, esp. 189.

2 World Congress of Families IX, “The Family in Europe – Alexey Komov, Maria Hildingsson, Laszlo Marki, Dr. J. Szymcsak,” YouTube Video, 1:01:35, November 13, 2015,

3 I thank PRA researcher Cole Parke for providing me with a recording of Komov’s presentation, which he gave on October 27, 2015 to an apparently highly receptive audience (judging by the laughter, comments, and applause audible in the recording).

4 Benjamin May, “World Congress of Families IX Announces Four Recipients Who Will Receive Awards in Salt Lake City on October 27,” Christian Newswire, October 20, 2015,

5 Cole Parke, “U.S. Conservatives and Russian Anti-Gay Laws – The WCF.” Eyes Right Blog, October 17, 2013,

6 Rev. Kapya Kaoma, “Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia,” Political Research Associates: 2009,

7 For example, see Xenia Loutchenko, “Vera ili ideologiia? ‘Tsargrad-TV’, Radio ‘Vera,’ i Novye Dukhovnye Skrepy” (Faith or Ideology? Tsargrad-TV, Radio ‘Faith,’ and New Spiritual Supports), Colta, September 22, 2014,

8 Christopher Stroop, “Religion and Politics in Russia: An Insider’s View,” The Wheel, November, 2015,

9 My abridged translation of our interview has been published in a new independent U.S.-based journal of Orthodox Christian thought. “Religion and Politics in Russia: An Insider’s View. Xenia Loutchenko Interviewed by Christopher Stroop,” The Wheel 1:3 (2015), 30-35, Available online:

10 Hannah Levintova, “How US Evangelicals Helped Create Russia’s Anti-Gay Movement,” Mother Jones, February 21, 2014.

11Cole Parke, “U.S. Conservatives and Russian Anti-Gay Laws – The WCF.” Eyes Right Blog, October 17, 2013,

12 Christopher Stroop, “Nationalist War Commentary as Russia’s Religious Thought: The Religious Intelligentsia’s Politics of Providentialism.” Russian Review 72:1 (2013), 94-115, esp. 100-01.

13 E. N. Trubetskoi, “Vozvrashchenie k filosofii” (The Return to Philosophy) in Filosofskii sbornik L’vu Mikhailovichu Lopatinu k tridtsatiletiiu nauchno-pedagogicheskoi deiatel’nosti. Ot Moskovskago Psikhologicheskogo Obshchestva. 1881-1911.) (Philosophical Festschrift in Honor of Lev Mikhailovich Lopatin’s Thirty Years of Scientific-Pedagogical Work [1881-1911], from the Moscow Psychological Society). (Moscow: Kushnerev, 1912), 1-9, esp. 9.

14 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.

15 Catherine Baird, “Religious Communism? Nicolai Berdyaev’s Contribution to Esprit’s “Interpretation of Communism,” Canadian Journal of History 30:1 (1995), 29-47.

16 Christopher Stroop, “The Russian Origins of the So-Called Post-Secular Moment: Some Preliminary Observations,” State, Religion and Church 1:1 (2014), 59-82,

17 Scott Kaufman, “Fox Guest: Keep Discrimination Legal Because Bible Tells Businesses Not to Hire Atheists,” Alternet, April 7, 2015.

18 Christopher Stroop, “The Russian Origins of the So-Called Post-Secular Moment: Some Preliminary Observations,” State, Religion and Church 1:1 (2014), 59-82,

19 Kathryn Joyce, “Missing: The ‘Right’ Babies,” The Nation, February 14, 2008,

20 Although it is a little too essentializing in its treatment of Russian national character, on Russian exceptionalism, including brief comments on Dugin, see Paul Coyer, “(Un)Holy Alliance: Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Exceptionalism,” Forbes, May 21, 2015,

21 Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn, “Putin’s Brain: Alexander Dugin and the Philosophy Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea. Foreign Affairs, March 31, 2014,

22 Paul Goble, “Window on Eurasia: The Kremlin’s Disturbing Reading List for Russia’s Political Elite,” Window on Eurasia—New Series, January 24, 2104,

23 Joshua Keating, “God’s Oligarch,” Slate, October 20, 2014,

24  Xenia Loutchenko, “Vera ili ideologiia? ‘Tsargrad-TV’, Radio ‘Vera,’ i Novye Dukhovnye Skrepy” (Faith or Ideology? Tsargrad-TV, Radio ‘Faith,’ and New Spiritual Supports), Colta, September 22, 2014,

25 Miranda Blue, “Pussy Riot’s American Detractors,” Right Wing Watch, February 18, 2014,

26 Alexander Morozov, “Konservativnaia revoliutsiia: smysl Kryma” [A Conservative Revolution: The Meaning of Crimea], Colta, March 17, 2014,

27 Brody Levesque, “Russian children’s rights commissioner: only Italy can adopt Russian children,” LGBTQ Nation, December 3, 2013,

28 See Miranda Blue, “Globalizing Homophobia, Part 2: ‘Today the Whole World is Looking at Russia,’” Right Wing Watch, October 3, 2013.

29 “Federal Law of the Russian Federation of July 29, 2013, No. 135-F3, Moscow. Amending Article 5 of the Federal Law ‘On the Defense of Children from Information Harmful for their Health and Development,’ and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation with the goal of protecting children from propaganda rejecting traditional family values.”:

30 Alexander Morozov, “Konservativnaia revoliutsiia: smysl Kryma” [A Conservative Revolution: The Meaning of Crimea], Colta, March 17, 2014.

31 Jennifer Monaghan, “Russian Orthodox Priest: Parental Violence Campaigns are Anti-Family,” The Moscow Times, March 24, 2015. Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov, “Vystuplenie protoiereia Dimitriia Smirnova na Obshchesetvennom sovete P. Astakhova” (Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov’s Presentation at the Community Forum of [the Ombudsman of the Office of the President of the Russian Federation for Children’s Rights] P. Astakhov). April 5, 2014.

32 With respect to abortion, as of November 21, 2011, according to Federal Law 323-F3, Russia banned abortions after 12 weeks except in the case of rape (up to 22 weeks) or medical necessity (at any time). Orthodox Christian leaders and their allies in the Duma continue to push for more severe restrictions, such as required ultrasounds.

33 Sergei Chapnin, “A Church of Empire: Why the Russian Church Chose to Bless Empire,” First Things, November 2015, Chapnin served as managing editor of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, an official organ of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, from 2009 until December 16, 2015. Chapnin’s moderate, highly informed and frank assessments of Russian church life are impressive, and his presence in the patriarchate was a rare bright spot among its prominent predominantly far-right voices. On December 18, social media associated with the Russian intelligentsia and Orthodox Church exploded with the news that Chapnin had been fired from the patriarchate for his critical views of the church’s prevailing ideology and relationship to the Russian state, particularly for remarks he made in a talk given at the Carnegie Moscow Center on December 9. The media have now confirmed the firing. See, for example, “Moscow Patriarchate Fires Sergey Chapnin, Editor of its Journal.”, Dec. 19, 2015.,-editor-of-its-journal-36205.html.

34 Franklin Graham, “Putin’s Olympic Controversy,” Decision Magazine, February 28, 2014,

35 Hannah Levintova, “How US Evangelicals Helped Create Russia’s Anti-Gay Movement,” Mother Jones, February 21, 2014. Meredith Bennett-Smith, “Scott Lively, American Pastor, Takes Credit for Inspiring Russian Anti-Gay Laws,” Huffington Post, September 9, 2013,

36 Quoted in Jay Michaelson, “The ‘Natural Family’: The Latest Weapon in the Christian Right’s New Global War on Gays,” The Daily Beast, June 14, 2015,

37 Christopher Stroop, “Russian Parliament Hosts U.S. Anti-Gay Activist Paul Cameron,” Religion Dispatches, December 12, 2013.

38 World Congress of Families, “Planning for World Congress of Families VIII Suspended,” n.d.,

39 Evan Hurst, “Russian ‘Pro-Family’ Conference Exposing Internal Dissension Among American Religious Right Leaders?” Two Care Center Against Religious Extremism, September 10, 2014,

40 Mykhailo Cherenkov, “Orthodox Terrorism,” First Things, May 2015,

41 Philip Jenkins, “Putin’s Corrupted Orthodoxy,” The American Conservative, March 24, 2015,

42 Hannah Levintova, “Did Anti-Gay Evangelicals Skirt US Sanctions on Russia?” Mother Jones, September 8, 2014,

43 Peter Montgomery, “World Congress of Families in Denial over Promoting Homophobia Globally,” Right Wing Watch, October 21, 2015,

44 “Final Plenary Session,” International Forum “Large Family [sic.] and the Future of Humanity,”!final-plenary-session/c1umu.

45 “Resolutions and Voting Results of 29th HRC Session,” UN Watch, July 2, 2015,

46 Jay Michaelson, “At the United Nations, it’s Human Rights, Putin Style,” The Daily Beast, June 26, 2014, Rebecca Oas, “Big Win for Traditional Family at UN Human Rights Council,” C-Fam, July 9, 2015,

47 “Plod very. Posol vsemirnogo kongressa semei v OON Alexey Komov. Chast’ 2” (The Fruits of Faith. The Ambassador of the World Congress of Families to the UN, Alexey Komov. Part 2),

48 On the National Front’s relationship to Russia see Anne-Claude Martin, “National Fronts Russian Loans Cause Uproar in European Parliament,”, December 5, 2014, Also relevant: Sam Ball, “Sarkozy to Meet Putin as French Right Looks to Russia,” France 24, October 29, 2015,

49 Andrzej Walicki, The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

50 Michael Hughes, “The English Slavophile: J. W. Birkbeck and Russia,” The Slavonic and East European Review, 82:3 (2004), 680-706.

51 Patrick J. Buchanan, “Whose Side is God on Now?” April 4, 2014.

52 For more evidence of this, note the effusive praise lavished on Russian actors by WCF IX Executive Director Janice Shaw Crouse: Fr. Mark Hodges, “Janice Shaw Crouse: Homosexual Activists Peddling ‘Falsehoods’ about World Congress of Families,” Life Site, September 29, 2015,

53 “Franklin Graham praises ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law, Criticizes US ‘Secularism,’ in Russia Visit,” Pravmir, November 3, 2015, Priest Mark Hodges, “Russian Orthodox Patriarch: Americans for natural marriage are ‘Confessors of the Faith,’” Pravmir, November 3, 2015,

54 “France: A New Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Paris,” Dici, February 14, 2014, “Frantsiia razreshila stroit’ pravoslavnyi dukhovno-kultur’nyi tsentr v parizhe” (France has Permitted the Construction of an Orthodox Cultural Center in Paris),, December 25, 2013, Since the days of Berdyaev and Bulgakov, both of whom lived out most of the rest of their lives in France after the Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war, there has been a large Russian Christian presence in Paris with a complicated relationship to Moscow. While the details of this situation are beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note  that Moscow seems to be attempting to exert greater influence over the ethnic Russian Christian population that remains in France.

55 “Pavel Astakhov prinial uchastie v konferentsii Vsemirnogo kongressa semei v Tbilisi” (Pavel Astakhov Took Part in a Conference of the World Congress of Families in Tbilisi), Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation’s Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, May 18, 2015, “ V Kyrgyzstane iz parlamenta otozvan zakonoproekt o zaprete gei-propagandy” (In Kyrgyzstan the Parliamentary Bill Banning Gay Propaganda has been Withdrawn), Gay Russia, June 30, 2015,

Dominionism is the New Religious Freedom

Historians may someday see the 2016 election season as the turning point in how our society understands the Dominionist movement that is seeking to recast society in its own image.  The herald of this new understanding is—ironically, as I will discuss below—a Washington Post commentary by historian John Fea, titled:  “Ted Cruz’s campaign is fueled by a dominionist vision for America.”  The Post’s publication of Fea’s piece follows years of both scholarly and journalistic tip-toeing around this elephant on the table of American public life – a dynamic modern theocratic religious and political movement that prior conventional wisdom notwithstanding is not fringe.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Ted Cruz speaks to supporters gathered at a late-night campaign stop at Penny’s Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, in Jan. 2016. Image via Matt A.J. on Flickr.

Fea, who chairs the History Department at the evangelical Messiah College in Pennsylvania, matter of factly discusses the influence of “seven mountains dominionism” on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) – who may be the most openly theocratic candidate ever to be a serious contender for a major party presidential nomination.  Perhaps just as remarkably, the Dominionism advocated by the likes of the Cruz family is wrapped in a claim that religious freedom is under assault in the U.S.

As I reported in the recent report, When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right:

“I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared before a raucous crowd of some 7,000 Southern Baptists in October 2015.  “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”

Unsurprisingly, Cruz features this claim at many of his presidential campaign rallies. This is the new normal.

But of course, Cruz’s notion of religious freedom is all about creating religious exemptions to the legal requirements to recognize the civic equality of LGBTQ people, and the rights of people seeking their sexual and reproductive health care, as well as the rights of people – including many Christians – whose religious views are different than those of the Cruzes and their ilk.

The term “Dominionism” was first popularized in the 1990s by researchers, including Chip Berlet, scholar Sara Diamond, and myself, who needed a term to describe the political aspirations of Christian Rightists who believed that they have a biblical mandate to control all earthly institutions –including government – until the second coming of Jesus. But the idea of conservative Christians gaining political power sufficient to take dominion over society predated our use of the term by decades.

The two main schools of Dominionist thought include Christian Reconstructionism, founded by the late R.J. Rushdoony, which advances the idea not only of the need for Christians (of the right sort) to dominate society, but institute and apply Old Testament “Biblical Law.”

The other, closely related form of Dominionism is advocated by the Pentecostal  New Apostolic Reformation, which exuberantly advocates for Christians to “reclaim the seven mountains of culture”: government, religion, media, family, business, education, and arts and entertainment.

The religious vision and political aspirations of Ted Cruz and his father Rafael are widely known in conservative Christian religious and political circles and are being discussed in his home state of Texas.  So much so, that reporter Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American Statesman wrote last summer about how Raphael Cruz was compelled to insist, “We are not talking about theocracy.”  But Fea reports that the Cruzes are close to Christian Nationalist author, historical revisionist and longtime Texas Republican leader David Barton, who declares that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation but has fallen away from this foundation and must be restored to avoid punishment from God.

Fea writes:

“Anyone who has watched Cruz on the stump knows that he often references the important role that his father, traveling evangelist Rafael Cruz, has played in his life. During a 2012 sermon at New Beginnings Church in Bedford, Texas, Rafael Cruz described his son’s political campaign as a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The elder Cruz told the congregation that God would anoint Christian “kings” to preside over an “end-time transfer of wealth” from the wicked to the righteous. After this sermon, Larry Huch, the pastor of New Beginnings, claimed Cruz’s recent election to the U.S. Senate was a sign that he was one of these kings.

According to his father and Huch, Ted Cruz is anointed by God to help Christians in their effort to “go to the marketplace and occupy the land … and take dominion” over it. This “end-time transfer of wealth” will relieve Christians of all financial woes, allowing true believers to ascend to a position of political and cultural power in which they can build a Christian civilization. When this Christian nation is in place (or back in place), Jesus will return.

Rafael Cruz and Larry Huch preach a brand of evangelical theology called Seven Mountains Dominionism. They believe Christians must take dominion over seven aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. The name of the movement comes from Isaiah 2:2: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains.”

Fea also notes that Barton, who runs the Keep the Promise Super PAC that supports Cruz’s campaign, shares this vision:

“Barton’s Christian nationalism is a product of this theological approach to culture. Back in 2011, Barton said that if Christians were going to successfully “take the culture” they would need to control these seven areas. “If you can have those seven areas,” Barton told his listeners to his radio show, “you can shape and control whatever takes place in nations, continents and even the world.”

This is remarkable, in part, because a few years ago, journalists and scholars who wrote about Dominionism found themselves facing a smear campaign by, among others, writers at the same paper in which Fea’s commentary appears. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and then-religion writer Lisa Miller were part of this national effort to discredit the idea that Dominionism was a real thing or that even if it was, that it was of much significance. This despite the fact that then-Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) had made his de facto presidential campaign announcement at a massive prayer rally organized by leaders of the movement for Seven Mountains Dominionism, and that then presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachman’s (R-MN) mentor at law school was John Eidsmoe, a prominent Christian Reconstructionist theorist, (who now works at the Foundation for Moral Law, founded by Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.)   Perry’s campaign later imploded, (for reasons other than the Dominionism controversy) and Bachman’s campaign never gained traction, but the episode certainly prefigured current events.

Now, some four years later, former Gov. Perry has endorsed Ted Cruz for president. Cruz has won the Iowa caucuses, and The Washington Post has published a major article about the Seven Mountains Dominionism of Sen. Cruz and his father.  A great transformation in American politics and religion, once pooh poohed by established interests (which also denounced those of us who recognized and wrote about its importance) is now accepted as uncontroverted fact.  And the attack dogs of the various political establishments are not yet snarling.

Crime Control & Political Repression: From the War On Drugs To The War On Terror

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

American political time is often rhetorically divided into before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this model, “before” signals liberty and respect for individual rights while “after” brought increasing restrictions and surveillance as a result of terrorism. But this distinction both romanticizes the past and obscures some of the institutional architecture underlying the War on Terror. In fact, there’s a direct line between the pervasive infiltration of Muslim communities seen since 2001 and the militarized street-surveillance and home invasion experienced by African American communities, which has steadily escalated from the early 1980s until the present.

The national emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to the level of rage (and community organizing) that exists beneath the surface of marginalized communities, but also to the impact of systematic law enforcement-driven repression. The steady expansion of both the power and use of law enforcement in multiple areas of life reflects (and institutionalizes) right-wing worldviews regardless of the political party or identity claims of the speaker.

Informants and undercover agents have been central to a significant proportion of federal prosecutions of “homegrown” Islamic terrorism cases.1 Those informants typically do much of the actual work to transform loose talk into concrete action.2 The procedural elements of these prosecutions, however, originated long before today’s War on Terror; the methods employed by the FBI against Muslims have been developed and refined for decades in the War on Drugs, as can be seen in brief descriptions below of a current homegrown terrorism case and a 1990s drug trafficking case.


Statue depicting the traditional “Blind Justice,” in front of the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.. Photo by Tim Evanson via Flickr. 

On April 10, 2015, a 20-year-old Kansas man named John Booker was charged3 with three counts of attempted terrorism: attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction at Fort Riley, in northern Kansas; attempt to damage and destroy U.S. government property (again at Fort Riley); and attempt to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (specifically the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL). The FBI complaint details the involvement of two confidential informants who had actively participated in every stage of planning the “plot” underlying the charges: they provided Booker with a list of the materials needed to make a bomb, they volunteered to build the bomb for him, delivered the supposed bomb to him in a van, and provided him with a map of the Fort Riley area.

A year earlier, in March 2014, Booker had come to the attention of the FBI after posting messages on Facebook indicating that he was planning to engage in violent jihad. Booker was interviewed by FBI agents and described his plans in considerable detail, but was allowed to go free with no other action taken, suggesting that the FBI agents involved did not consider him a credible threat. It seems clear that John Booker ideologically supported ISIS/ISIL and had some aspiration to engage in violence, but these encounters with the FBI suggest that, on his own, he had little capacity to turn his provocative statements into action. The key event leading to the terrorism charges occurred in October 2014, approximately seven months after his first meeting with the FBI, when he met the first of the two informants who set in motion the events that led to his arrest in April 2015. (The information currently available on this case comes from the FBI, and does not describe the motivations of the informants or whether they received compensation of some kind for their participation.)

Compare Booker’s arrest and prosecution with that of a man identified only as Miguel in an article written by a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. In 1996, Miguel, an immigrant from Bolivia who worked as a parking lot attendant in Washington, D.C., was charged as a drug kingpin based solely on the testimony of a paid informant with an extensive criminal record.4 The informant had fled to the United States to avoid prosecution for a variety of criminal charges in Argentina and Bolivia, and over the preceding four years had been paid by the DEA for information in several other cases. Miguel had spent three of those years working 60 hours a week for a large parking lot company.

The informant was a distant family friend of Miguel and, based on his past experience, saw an opportunity to make money by fabricating a story to sell to the DEA. He proceeded to invent a fake “cocaine deal,” wherein Miguel was the “kingpin,” even though Miguel had no prior involvement in drugs or drug dealing. While the informant developed his story with the DEA, he simultaneously lured Miguel into playing along with a supposed one-time deal that would net them both considerable cash, if Miguel pretended to be a major Bolivian cocaine dealer. It ended with a staged transaction in which Miguel accepted a bag of cash in exchange for a promise to deliver cocaine a few weeks later; he was arrested as he left the room. The informant was paid $30,000 for arranging the encounter, and after several years in and out of court Miguel ended up taking a plea bargain than gave him a four-year sentence.

Informants have played such consistent and central roles in the War on Drugs that the provision of information has repeatedly generated elaborate economic relationships between prosecutors and inmates. In 1990, an L.A. County grand jury found that a well-developed network of jailhouse informants investigated cases based on newspaper accounts and any other sources they could acquire, and provided (largely false) testimony for the prosecutor’s office in exchange for reduced jail time, privileges, and other incentives.5 Between 2004 and 2006, a similar network of informants was found to be operating in Texas prisons, investigating cases based on publically accessible material and providing testimony for the prosecutor’s office, resulting in some cases being thrown out.6 Informants in homegrown terrorism cases, similarly, often receive some form of compensation, including money or assistance with immigration or other legal issues.7

The Right and the War on Drugs

U.S. drug policy has deeply racist roots. The Harrison Act of 1914, the first law to significantly control access to opiates and cocaine, was passed in part by exacerbating prejudices against Chinese immigrants and impoverished southern African Americans.8 In the early 1930s, Harry Anslinger, head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed that use of marijuana caused half of the violent crime committed in Black, Mexican and other Latin American immigrant neighborhoods.9 The War on Drugs both continued and dramatically amplified this historical pattern. Nixon’s 1971 declaration that drugs were a threat to the nation occurred within the context of significant social conflict and change, during which conservative resistance to the Civil Rights movement included defining social unrest as criminal activity.10 Ronald Reagan, in turn, built upon two of Nixon’s more toxic legacies: the “Southern Strategy” of using mildly-coded racism to align southern Whites with the Republican party, and the War on Drugs, with its attendant images of Black urban crime and drug dealing. (It’s worth noting that Whites and Blacks use and sell drugs at very similar rates.11)

The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party.

One of the challenges in describing the links between the Right Wing and both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror is the extent to which the political discourse of U.S. society has moved to the Right culturally. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has grown increasingly sensitive to the perception of risk and the need for safety, accepting “freedom from” over “freedom to.” This is characteristic of societal moves to the Right, as German philosopher Erich Fromm noted in relation to the cultural psychology underlying the growth of Nazism. The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party. Yet core elements of this mindset have become normalized in the U.S., with Democrats as well as Republicans wanting to appear tough on both crime and foreign policy, and the presence of police officers in schools treated as normal (even when individual officers’ behavior may be questioned). Throughout the War on Drugs, personal privacy and individual liberty were steadily constricted by the need to keep us “safe” from the dangers of drug use and drug dealing, laying the legal and cultural groundwork for the much greater invasiveness of the War on Terror that would follow.

Race, Searches, and the Presumption of Guilt

In the movie CitizenFour, filmmaker Laura Poitras implicitly and explicitly makes the point that much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty. When the War on Terror began, the justification of mass searches of body and property on the grounds of safety had already become astoundingly normalized, and complaints were met with the assertion that only the guilty need worry. Once a society has accepted the need for chronic, invasive control of one vulnerable community on the grounds of protecting society, it’s a small step to target additional communities and employ somewhat different forms of surveillance.

Much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty.

Routine drug testing has become perhaps the most widespread example of the erosion of judicial and Constitutional protections against searches without probable cause. Urine tests for evidence of recent drug use have become a commonplace experience for health care workers, transit workers, and numerous other public service occupations, and are a standard element of participation in high school team sports. However taken-for-granted this has become, prior to 1989 routine drug tests without individual suspicion only took place in the military. In 1986, the Reagan Administration recommended testing employees for drug use as part of the War on Drugs, and the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act required that companies with federal contracts provide a workplace free of illicit substances. In response, there were multiple cases in which courts ruled against mass-testing of firefighters,12 school bus drivers,13 and public school students,14 on the grounds that testing without individual suspicion would violate due process, privacy and protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In 1989, however, the Supreme Court discovered a “legitimate [state] interest” in protecting the public from drug use that justified an exception to the due process and individual suspicion requirements in the Fourth Amendment.15 Widespread testing in aviation, trucking, railroads and mass transit quickly followed. By 1995, the court’s understanding of legitimate state interest had moved so far that it approved random mandatory testing of student athletes.16

Silent March against "Stop and Frisk," New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. License:

Silent March against “Stop and Frisk,” New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. 

At the same time, Fourth Amendment protections were being eroded in other ways as well. The most egregious and destructive violations of privacy and person in the War on Drugs may be the development of the no-knock warrant. In 1970, an anti-crime bill authorized judges to issue search warrants that permitted agents to break down a door without first knocking and identifying themselves. The warrants were initially permitted for use only in a small number of federal anti-drug investigations, but they are now more common and associated with SWAT team raids, which increased from 3,000 in 1981 to 50,000 in 2005.17 An ACLU review18 of SWAT raids found that almost 80 percent were used to serve a search warrant (62 percent for a drug search) but only 35 percent of cases clearly resulted in finding contraband of any kind.

No-knock warrants and SWAT raids have resulted in an uncountable number of unnecessary injuries and deaths that are in some ways intrinsic to the process of militarized forced entry into a home. In Massachusetts in 2011,19 a 68-year-old African American man was watching TV in his pajamas when a SWAT team broke down his door with a no-knock warrant to search for his daughter’s boyfriend, who did not live at the house. The man was shot while lying facedown on the floor, and it was later revealed that the suspect they were looking for had been arrested outside the home before the door was broken down. In Georgia in 2014,20 officers executed a no-knock warrant at 3 A.M. at a home with children’s toys in the yard. They threw a flashbang or “stun” grenade into the home as they entered, and the grenade landed in the crib of a 19-month-old toddler. Given the number of no-knock warrants issued annually, it is literally impossible to know the exact number that have resulted in injury or death to innocent parties, but the process puts the people inside the home at significant risk.

Cases and Trials: Prosecutors and Courts

The expansion of law enforcement powers over the past 40 years has not been limited to invasions of privacy, but has moved into the operation of criminal law in the courts as well. Progressives have historically viewed the federal courts as upholders of basic rights and protections, largely based on the work of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice. But the criminal branch of the federal system has become fully complicit in law enforcement assaults on vulnerable communities in both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Drug laws have had a significant effect on criminal charging, trials and convictions in the federal courts in ways that enabled the subsequent, and higher profile, prosecutorial abuses of the War on Terror. The road from arrest to prison, from police practices to mass incarceration, passes through the courts. Theoretically, judges hold significant power, both direct and indirect, to modify law enforcement practices through questions about the admissibility of evidence, the constitutionality of particular actions, and the ultimate sentence imposed on a guilty party. An obscure but crucial element of the War on Drugs has been to shift power from judges to prosecutors,21] with multiple consequences for criminal defendants. These changes have both grown out of and accelerated the politicization of crime and punishment.22

Mandatory minimums

In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act replaced the federal Parole Commission with the Sentencing Commission, a bureaucratic declaration that punishment now trumps rehabilitation in the federal prison system. From 1984-88, the Sentencing Commission and subsequent anti-drug bills eliminated parole in the federal prison system and instituted escalating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including dramatically higher sentences for crack cocaine over powder cocaine.23 The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was the most overtly racialized element of the anti-drug bills, since crack was known to be a form of cocaine largely used by Blacks while cocaine in powder form was more common among Whites. The elimination of parole for all federal convictions after 1987, when the rule was passed, has been less visible since state prison systems still have parole and the vast majority of incarcerated people are in state prisons. The recent attention to the early release of 6,000 people convicted of federal drug offenses24 might not have happened if they could have been quietly released on parole without the need for formal action.

In combination, the sentencing guidelines and elimination of parole shifted the balance of power in the federal courts.25 Mandatory minimum sentences mean that the parameters of prison time are primarily determined by the charge itself, and negotiations then focus on the charge as a way to manage the sentencing outcome. In practical terms, this gives prosecutors enormous power to determine the fate of an arrestee through the minimums associated with different charges, and facilitates a pervasive system of plea bargains in which a defendant’s fate is determined outside the courtroom and with little judicial oversight. This dynamic was exacerbated by cutbacks to public defenders and other indigent defense resources.

Plea bargains

Approximately 90 percent of cases settle through the plea bargain process, and defendants who insist on going to trial usually receive harsher sentences,26 although this may reflect the power of sentencing guidelines. Plea bargains involve manipulation of the charges and sentencing recommendations made by the prosecutor, without meaningful judicial review or meaningful documentation of the negotiation process. The sentencing guidelines for drug offences exacerbate this situation dramatically, with punitive threats of charges that carry high mandatory minimums used to coerce bargains.27 A particularly toxic element of the process comes from a clause in the drug-related sentencing guidelines that recommends reduced sentences for defendants who “cooperate” with police and prosecutors. This clause has generated a quasi-underground economy of “snitching” in which information buys sentence reductions, generally at the expense of those too powerless to exact revenge.

Use of informants

Informants have become a pervasive aspect of drug cases at both federal and local levels, but with little or no oversight by the Department of Justice.28 The system of mandatory minimums paired with leniency in exchange for information offers significant incentives for defendants to provide information to police and prosecutors and creates a legal context that invites corruption from all players.29 Over time, this constant supply of informants has generated some dependence among prosecutors, exemplified by Miguel’s story, as informant testimony provides a less expensive and time consuming alternative to building cases based on material evidence.30 The resulting system invites slanted or outright false testimony from informants while providing significant incentives for prosecutors to overlook indications of problems with informant sources and lack of supporting evidence.31 It also uses the weak to punish the weak: turning in an impoverished neighbor safely reduces prison time, while providing information about higher-level drug dealers could cause more problems than it solves.

Federal prosecutions of “homegrown terrorism” build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.

This system of threats, harsh prison sentences, informants, and plea bargains should sound very familiar to anyone paying close attention to terrorism cases. Federal prosecutions of “homegrown Islamist” terrorism build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.32

Prosecuting “terrorists”

U.S.-based Islamist terrorism cases, commonly called “homegrown,” have the same core procedural elements as drug prosecutions although they are anchored in a different set of criminal laws. People charged with committing certain offenses (e.g. weapons possession) for political reasons face “terrorism enhancements” rather than mandatory minimums, but with similar consequences. Terrorism enhancements add a multiplier to the standard sentencing recommendations for a charge, again shifting significant power to the prosecutor in the choice of what charges to file. The resulting threat of extreme sentences creates pressure for negotiated guilty pleas and sentencing bargains. Informants again play a central role in the building of cases, and typically receive significant legal or financial incentives for their cooperation with authorities. Threats of deportation or prosecution as well as plea bargains on existing charges have proven as effective in generating informants in terrorism cases as they have in drug cases. The process again creates cases that get resolved largely behind the scenes, with vulnerable defendants pressured into guilty pleas in exchange for reduced sentences. The resulting spectacle reinforces the perception of Muslim communities as centers of terrorist activity, although a closer look at prosecutorial activity raises questions about the definition of certain legal terms.

Theories of prevention

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. License:

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. 

Legally, the defense of entrapment requires prosecutors to demonstrate that the defendant would have committed a crime of this type regardless of the informant or undercover agent. Homegrown terrorism cases have been built around a theory of radicalization to support prosecution arguments that Muslim defendants would have engaged in terrorism without the instigation of the informant or law enforcement officials,33 a claim to “pre-emptive” prosecution as a form of national defense. While focused on religion and national security, the core logic of the argument builds upon and extends the presumptions of danger and guilt embedded in the criminalization of low-income Black and Latino communities through frisking young Black men walking down the street or calling the police to handle misbehaving students in inner city public schools. In all these cases, the justification rests on a presumption that membership in certain racial/ethnic groups constitutes a predisposition to commit particular kinds of acts, and that militarized police practices are necessary to protect society.

Politics by other means

Among progressives, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are increasingly understood in relation to the larger history of legal repression of Black people in the U.S. The focus on post-1970s racially disproportionate incarceration and its consequences,34 however, overlooks both the deeply racialized history of U.S. drug law and the multiple contexts for the expansion of law enforcement over the past 40 years.

U.S. drug law has been a tool of racial control throughout its 100-year history, 35 but the War on Drugs shifted the legal environment in qualitative, and not just quantitative, ways. As described throughout this article, the past four decades have seen changes in constitutionally-derived legal protections regarding searches and the right to privacy of home and person which affect all of us to some degree, but have specifically targeted African American communities. Within the court system, there has been a systematic shift of power from judges to prosecutors and the creation of incentives for the use of informants and other practices that reduce transparency and sidestep open judicial process. These gradual but steady reductions in civil liberties and the protections of due process were initially developed to “protect” the public from exposure to drugs and drug use, but have expanded into other areas of law enforcement. Over the past few years, the mandatory minimums and mass incarceration of the War on Drugs have been rolled back in certain ways, as with the decision to release several thousand federal prisoners as part of a rollback of mandatory minimum sentences.36 Meanwhile, the War on Terror continues unabated and employs many of the same legal strategies at an even higher level against Muslim communities in the U.S.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization. In the 1960s, COINTELPRO (a portmanteau for the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program) targeted activists, organizations, and black communities during a period of widespread collective action. In contrast, the War on Drugs and War on Terror focus on communities primarily defined by vulnerability, not active resistance. The systematic targeting of Muslim communities has generated more fear than mobilization, and the targets of FBI anti-terrorism activities are often poor and socially or emotionally troubled.37 While African American communities have historically experienced recurrent waves of political mobilization and unrest, that had not been their primary condition for many years until the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the legal changes described in this article can be traced directly to the War on Drugs, the past 30-40 years have seen an overall pattern of criminalization of the poor justified by the need for order and discipline. The increased use of paramilitary police units like SWAT teams to execute search warrants and other routine procedures has expanded in small towns and rural areas as well as major cities.38 In a process sometimes described as the school-to-prison pipeline, police officers have become part of the normal disciplinary apparatus in public schools, and now arrest students, primarily low-income students of color, for behavior that used to be handled within the school.39 Homelessness has effectively become a crime in many cities, with local laws prohibiting sleeping, lying down, or even sitting for long periods of time in public spaces.40 Criminalization has extended into sexuality and public health, as laws to protect living children are used to prosecute pregnant women for child abuse for, say, delivering children born with drugs in their system or refusing a doctor’s orders,41 and young gay men and trans women of color are charged as sex workers for carrying more than three condoms.42 Simultaneously, the consequences of having a criminal record have expanded in ways that further marginalize the poor, such as limiting access to public housing and a range of social welfare programs, including some forms of student financial aid.43

The distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic.

One lesson of the War on Drugs may well be that the distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic. The War on Drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline have resulted in high levels of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision (such as probation) among young African Americans, which in turn creates other forms of vulnerability such as lack of education, employment, and housing. The stigma of being labeled a criminal compounds the technical disenfranchisement of loss of voting rights, access to social welfare programs, and a wide range of employment opportunities. In addition, mainstream Civil Rights organizations have historically been slow to engage with criminal law,44 and the growing critique of drug law and mass incarceration are a relatively recent phenomenon.

From a political perspective, one advantage of the tactic lies in the stigma and fear associated with criminalization. People accused of stigmatized crimes are difficult to defend, even for Civil Rights advocates, and civil liberties protections can be rolled back under the mantle of crime control and community safety. As a result, a highly developed and refined contemporary system of legal coercion, repression, surveillance, and associated institutional infrastructure remained largely outside of the progressive political vision, even as it was adapted for targeting Muslim communities.

Beyond the officially declared wars on drugs and terror, the expanding circles of criminalization described above have steadily encroached on social justice discourse in multiple arenas, eroding social movement gains through legal assaults on the young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable. The unwillingness of many progressives to challenge the criminal justice system and defend those caught in its net enabled mass incarceration to grow largely unchecked for over 30 years, as low-income Black communities experienced growing devastation. In order to truly roll back the power of right-wing movements in the U.S., progressives will have to challenge the politics of fear and criminalization, and stand in alliance with those pushed outside of society through the legal system. Black Lives Matter activists model this every day by refusing attempts to implicitly justify police violence through criminalizing Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others. Will other movements follow that path?

About the Author

Naomi Braine is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a lifelong activist in struggles for social justice. Her political and intellectual work has addressed mass incarceration, the war on drugs/drug policy, HIV and collective action, and, more recently, the war on terror.


[1] Thomas Cincotta, “Platform for Prejudice: How the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative Invites Racial Profiling, Erodes Civil Liberties, and Undermines Security.” Political Research Associates, March 2010,

[2] Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. (New York: Columbia School of Law and Human Rights Watch, 2014); Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[3] All information on the Booker case comes from the formal complaint filed on April 10, 2015: USA v John T. Booker, Jr a.k.a. “Mohammed Abdullah Hassan”, Case Number: 15-mj-5039-KGS, D.C. KS (Topeka Docket).

[4] Michael Levine, “King Rats: Criminal informants are the real winners in then DEA’s drug war,” Utne Reader, May-June 1996,

[5] Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County,” June 26, 1990.

[6] Randy Balko, “Guilty before proven innocent.”, May 2008,

[7] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[8] Nancy Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice. (New York: Routledge Press, 2000); David Musto “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.” Scientific American 40, no. 7 (July 1991).

[9] Susan Speaker, “Demons for the Twentieth Century: the Rhetoric of Drug Reform, 1920-40.” in Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, edited by Sarah Tracy and Caroline Acker, (Univ of Mass Press. 2004).

[10] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[11] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[12] Lovvorn v City of Chattanooga, (861 F.2d 1388 (D.C. TN 1986)); Capua v City of Plainfield, (643 F.Supp. 1507 (D.C. NJ 1986)).

[13] Jones v Mckenzie, (833 F.2d 335 (D.C. DC 1986)).

[14] Odenheim v Carlstadt-East Rutherford School District, (510 A.2d 709 (S.C. NJ 1985)).

[15] National Treasury Workers Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989).

[16] Vernonia v. Acton, Washington School District, (23 F.3d 1514 (9th Cir. 1995)).

[17] Peter Kraska and Louis Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.” Justice Quarterly 14 no. 4 (December 1997); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing. ACLU, 2014,

[18] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[19] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[20] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[21] Jamie Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty. Human Rights Watch, December 5, 2013,

[22] Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2007).

[23] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[24] Michael S. Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons,” New York Times, October 6, 2015,

[25] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.; Alexander Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[26] Lindsey Devers, Plea and Charge Bargaining: Research Summary. Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Dept of Justice, January 24, 2011.

[27] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[28] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[29] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.; Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[30] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[31]Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County.”

[32] This summary and the material in the next section, Prosecuting Terrorists, all comes from the following two reports: Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions.; Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.

[33] Stephen Downs, Esq, and Kathy Manley, Esq, Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution. (Albany NY: Project SALAM and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, May 2014),

[34] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[35] Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice.; Musto, “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.”

[36] Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons.”

[37] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.; Downs, Esq, and Manley, Esq,  Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.

[38] Kraska and Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.”

[39] Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty. Report from the Institute for Policy Studies, DC.

[40] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[41] Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973-2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 38 no. 2 (January 2013).

[42] Margaret H. Wurth, Rebecca Schleifer, Megan McLemore, Katherine W. Todrys and Joseph J Amon, “Condoms as evidence of prostitution in the United States and the criminalization of sex work,” Journal of International AIDS Society 16, (May 2013).

[43] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[44] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

35 Years of Demonization: The Criminalization of Black Women

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

In December 1990, when Alice Johnson lost her job, she never imagined she would end up in prison. The African-American single mother had been supporting her five children as a manager of a FedEx store in Memphis. She soon found another job, but at one-third the pay. Meanwhile, the bills mounted. When she was offered a quick way to make money—by passing phone messages about where to buy drugs—she took it. Johnson is now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering.1

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails increased from 292 per 100,000 to 481 per 100,000.2 But the number of women in prison rose even more sharply, doubling over the ten-year period.

The numbers keep growing. The number of women sent to prison grew by another nearly three percent (or 2,800 people) between 2012 and 2013. The imprisonment rate for Black women is 113 of every 100,000, more than twice that of White women (who are imprisoned at a rate of 51 per 100,000). At the end of 2013, nearly one quarter (or 23,100) of the 104,134 women in state or federal prison were Black.3 In contrast, Black women make up just 13 percent of women in the United States.4 Today, approximately 206,000 women are in jails or prisons nationwide.5 Johnson, who was arrested in 1994 and charged with conspiracy to possess cocaine, attempted possession of cocaine, and money laundering, is one of those women.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

In July 2015, hundreds of people marched in Minneapolis to honor Sandra Bland and protest the deaths of Black women who have died in police custody. Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.

Johnson’s imprisonment did not happen in a political vacuum. The same policies of mass incarceration and racial policing that have sent disproportionate numbers of Black men to prison have also hit Black women hard.6 In 1996, the year Johnson was convicted, the rate of incarceration for Black women was seven times higher than for White women. The right-wing rhetoric that fueled those policies affecting Black men also reinforced a narrative in which Black women are seen as inherently criminal, a narrative that continues to influence public perception and law enforcement today.7

In 1971, Richard M. Nixon declared a War on Drugs. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan expanded that war. But, as Michelle Alexander notes in her pivotal study of the hyper-incarceration of African Americans, The New Jim Crow, this expansion came at a time when neither media nor most members of the public were particularly concerned about drugs. Reagan’s administration launched a public relations campaign, focusing largely on crack, to build both public and legislative support for his drug war. The war was not race-neutral—images of Black people addicted to crack, whether in the form of “crack whores,” “crack dealers” or “crack babies,” were utilized to strike fear into the public and garner support for harsher laws and more punitive sentences.8

The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars, and cheats.

In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, mandating a five-year sentence for a five-gram sale of crack cocaine; in contrast, the same sentence only took effect for 500 grams of powder cocaine. Although Whites and Blacks used drugs at similar rates, enforcement of the Act targeted Black people, drastically increasing the number of Black people sent to prison—in 1980, African Americans made up 12 percent of the country’s population, but 23 percent of all people arrested on drug charges. By 1990, however, they made up more than 40 percent of those arrested for drugs and over 60 percent of those convicted.9 The Act also took its toll on women, particularly Black women. Under the Act, police and prosecutors were able to arrest and charge spouses and lovers with drug trafficking “conspiracy” for everyday actions such as taking a phone message or sharing finances. This is what happened to North Carolina mother Phyllis Hardy, whose ordeal I have described elsewhere.10 In 1991, Hardy’s husband was arrested for conspiracy to import and sell cocaine. He told me that prosecutors asked him if he had ever given money to his wife. “She’s my wife. Of course I gave her money,” he told them.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the "Say Her Name" report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

Andrea Ritchie, co-author of the “Say Her Name” report speaks at the 2015 New York City #SayHerName vigil
in remembrance of Black women and girls killed by the police. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr.

But, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, sharing money with a spouse—even for household expenses like groceries or the mortgage—ropes him or her into the conspiracy. Phyllis Hardy was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine as well as money laundering. Believing that justice would prevail, she went to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 30-and-a-half years in federal prison. Her husband, who accepted a plea bargain, served 15 years.

Reagan’s War on Drugs coincided with a less-trumpeted right-wing war on women. Invoking images of Black welfare mothers driving Cadillacs and having children solely to collect more taxpayer dollars, Reagan and his acolytes whipped up public furor against welfare recipients and the idea that society should support those most in need. The frenzy continued past his presidency; in 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was introduced as part of the Republican Contract with America and heavily pushed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, as well as right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, home of Charles Murray, whose racist writings formed the foundation for welfare reform. In 1996, Clinton signed it into law. The bill, popularly known as “welfare reform,” placed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare, excluded benefits to children born to mothers already on welfare, required recipients to work after two years, and enacted a lifetime ban on welfare benefits for people with drug felonies or who had violated probation or parole.11

The demonization of Black women extended beyond welfare and, even 35 years later, continues to inform police interactions. In 2013, of all women stopped by New York City police, over 53 percent were Black although Black people make up only 27 percent of the city’s residents.12

“The image of Black women continues to be fueled by the right-wing narrative of Black women as welfare frauds, liars and cheats,” Andrea Ritchie, a Soros Justice Fellow examining police violence against women and LGBT people of color, told The Public Eye. “These images drive interactions from whether to write someone a traffic ticket or arrest them for not putting their cigarette out to what to charge someone.” Ritchie pointed to the example of Charlena Michele Cooks, a Black mother in Barstow, California, who was eight months pregnant when she was brutally arrested in January 2015. While dropping her second-grade daughter off at school, Cooks had a driving dispute with another mother. The other mother, who is White, called the police. According to his body cam footage, the officer, after listening to the White mother’s statement, said, “I don’t see a crime that’s been committed,” but offered to speak with Cooks. The officer approached Cooks and, when she refused to give her full name and began to walk away, the officer twisted her hands behind her, forced her against a fence and arrested her as she screamed in pain and fear. She was charged with resisting arrest. A court later dismissed the charge; the ACLU of Southern California confirms that Cooks did indeed have the right to refuse to give her name.13

Whenever interactions like this occur, the underlying justification demonizes Black women, noted Ritchie. “Every police interaction is informed by the perception that they’re lying, cheating and not worthy of protection.” The brutal 2015 arrest of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody in Texas following a questionable traffic stop, illustrates the way in which these ingrained perceptions can be deadly.

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

National Day Of Action to end State violence against Black girls and women. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr

Even when they are not deadly, the narrative informs who police choose to target—and arrest. In the 1990s, New York City, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner Bill Bratton, instituted a policy of “stop, question and frisk,” soon shortened to “stop and frisk,” in which police stop and search people whom they perceive to be acting suspiciously. Not surprisingly, most of the stops involved people of color. In 2011, nearly 90 percent of these stops involved Black or Latina/o people.14 But stop and frisk is not limited to New York; other cities also employ the tactic and, as in New York, people of color are often the targets.

Those stopped and frisked can be arrested not only for weapons or drugs, but also for carrying legal items such as condoms. Until recently in New York, police could—and would—seize condoms as evidence of sex work. But this policy didn’t just affect people engaged in sex work. Trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly people of color, also felt the brunt in a phenomenon known as “walking while trans.”15 Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender non-conforming people of color living in Jackson Heights, one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity. None were actually sex workers, but they were charged with prostitution-related offenses if they were carrying condoms.16 Considering that the city’s Department of Health distributes over 35 million condoms each year, the practice of using condoms as evidence seems particularly absurd. But not absurd enough to abolish the practice. In May 2014, Bratton (once again New York’s police commissioner) announced that police will no longer use condoms as evidence—unless they suspect people of sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution.17 

Nearly 60 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people of color living in Jackson Heights reported being stopped by police, who profiled them as sex workers solely because of their race and gender identity.

Undoing 35 years of demonization requires approaches on several different levels. Andrea Ritchie is the co-author of Say Her Name, a July 2015 report examining police violence against Black women and girls, which includes some examples of policy demands that address Black women’s particular experiences of policing, such as a ban on using Tasers and excessive force on pregnant women or children and the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which prohibits any agency from engaging in racial profiling.18 In New Orleans, years of organizing and attention to the city’s racist policing practices ended in a 2012 consent decree in which the New Orleans Police Department was ordered to implement bias-free policing.19

At the same time, the underlying narrative that promotes these policies and interactions needs to change. The popular hashtag and associated movement #BlackLivesMatter have helped challenge this script, calling attention to the racism and violence against Black people. While #BlackLivesMatter, started by three Black women, does not focus exclusively on the violence against Black men, activists and media makers made sure that the call was expanded to ensure that Black women and Black trans people were not forgotten with calls for Black Trans Lives Matter and Black Girls Matter. Activists, media makers and members of the general public need to continue challenging the stereotypes of Black women and rewrite the script so that gender and gendered violence remain integral in the struggle to transform the criminal justice system.

About the Author

Victoria Law is a freelance writer focusing on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.


[1] Victoria Law, “Mothers Serving Long-Term Drug Sentences Call for Clemency,” Truthout, September 11, 2015,

[2] Allen J. Beck and Jennifer C. Karberg, Prisons and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, March 2001, 3,

[3] E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2013, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, September 30, 2014, 9,

[4] Maria Guerra, Fact Sheet: The State of African American Women in the United States, Center for American Progress, November 7, 2013,

[5] Aleks Kajstura and Russ Immarigeon, States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context, Prison Policy Initiative, .

[6] Department of Justice, “State and Federal Prisons Report Record Growth During Last 12 Months,” December 3, 1995, 4,

[7] This past summer, Texas district attorney called Sandra Bland “it” and re-directed the blame for Bland’s brutal arrest and subsequent death on her own behavior, stating, “It was not a model traffic stop … and it was not a model person that was stopped on a traffic stop. I think the public can make its own determinations as to the behaviors that are seen in the video.” Michael Gracezyk, “Texas Prosecutor Says Too Soon to Say How Woman Died in Cell,” Associated Press, July 21, 2015,

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 5.

[9] Jonathan Rothwell, “How the War on Drugs Damages Black Social Mobility,” Brookings, September 30, 2014,

[10] Victoria Law, “Will Obama’s Commutation Allow Grandma Hardy and Thousands of Drug War Prisoners to Finally Go Home?” Truthout, August 20, 2014,; Victoria Law, “Phyllis ‘Grandma’ Hardy is Home! But Over 98,000 People Remain Prisoners of the Drug War,” Truthout, April 7, 2015,

[11] Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012,

[12] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie, Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, (New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015). 7,

[13] Michael Martinez and Kyung Lah, “Police Video Shows ‘Horrifying’ Arrest of Pregnant Woman, ACLU Says,” CNN, May 29, 2015,

[14] New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop‐and‐Frisk 2011 Report 8 (2012). 5.

[15] People’s Law Office, “Criminalization of LGBTQ People,” n.p., n.d.,

[16] Make the Road New York, Transgressive Policing: Police Abuse of LGBTQ Communities of Color in Jackson Heights, October 2012, 4, 15,

[17] Emma Caterine, “Condoms as Evidence: Terrible for Sex Workers, Terrible for Public Health,” RH Reality Check, March 8, 2013,

[18] Crenshaw and Ritchie, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” African American Policy Forum, July 2015, 33 (See also: Cassandra Osei, “Reports in Review,” The Public Eye, Fall 2015, 20); End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, H.R. 1933, 114th Congress (2015),

[19] New Orleans Police Department, “NOPD Consent Decree,” City of New Orleans Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, n.d., It should be noted that, three years later, “the pace of reform continues in many areas to be slower than desired.” Ken Daley, “Third Year in Consent Decree ‘Critical’ for New Orleans Police,” The Times-Picayune, October 5, 2015,

When Exemption is the Rule: The Religious Freedom Strategy of the Christian Right

To download the report as a PDF, please click the image.

To download the report as a PDF, please click the image.

Table of Contents:

-Executive Summary
-Building Infrastructure for the Long Game
…..Mobilizing to Discriminate in Bob Jones
-Building a political infrastructure for a counteroffensive
-Manhattan Declaration: A Strategic Turning Point
-Legal and Legislative Players and Trends Today
-Federal Religious Freedom Cases
-State-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts
-Obergefell v. Hodges
-Fighting for Religious Freedom in North Carolina
-‘Religification’ and Zones of Exemption
…..Individual Exemptions
…..Institutional Exemptions
-Territorial Exemptions Involving Zoning and Land Use
-RFRA and the Bipartisan Memo
-The Power of Dualistic Thinking
-Conclusion and Recommendations
-About the Author


Few works of any consequence or magnitude happen in isolation. All are built on the work of those who have come before, some known, most unknown. If I could, I would want them all to know I am humbled and honored to follow in their footsteps.  Most publications are also collective enterprises and this is no exception. I want to thank the many people who made this report possible. I am honored to have had the assistance and wise counsel of my PRA colleagues—at various stages, Eric Ethington, Gabriel Joffe, Tarso Ramos, and report editor Abby Scher, who has patiently seen me through yet another remarkable editorial adventure.  I am also grateful for the kind reading, constructive feedback, and encouragement from Rob Boston, Don Clark, Jay Michaelson, and Patti Miller.  Special thanks to Jonathan Hutson for his expert research, editorial advice, and strategic media guidance.  And finally, profound thanks to Tim Sweeney and the Pride Foundation for their generous support, without which this project might never have happened.  – Frederick Clarkson


By Rev. John C. Dorhauer

You might say religious liberty is in my blood.

I’m a Mayflower descendant. My maternal grandmother was Delores Howland, some 16 or so generations removed from John Howland. His home still stands in Plymouth, and I have been there to sign the descendants’ book.

As proud as I am of my Pilgrim Congregationalist history, I am also aware that within that history is the Puritan experience of the Salem witch trials and the treatment of indigenous peoples:  reminders of how religion writ large as a culture’s moral compass can bring out the worst in us. By the time our Constitution was written, both the desire to be free from religious tyranny found in the spirit of the Pilgrims – and the need to protect ourselves from religious zealots like the Puritans – would serve to inform its authors. They treated both as instructive, writing into the Bill of Rights language that would preserve our religious liberty and restrict the government’s power to establish any religious point of view as normative.

The irony of the Religious Right fighting for a “freedom” that utilizes all three branches of government to enforce their narrow theology isn’t lost on me. Anyone who doubts either the intent or the ability of the Religious Right to reshape the landscape of religious liberty in America isn’t paying attention. And, to quote Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.”

I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should grant me the right to refuse to serve or hire someone because they are homosexual. Removing someone’s civil rights by empowering the government to protect and preserve my religious homophobia is not my idea of religious liberty.

I believe in religious freedom, but not the kind that argues that government should tolerate employers or medical care professionals who want to deprive women of their full range of health care options. Depriving women of choices that our courts deem legal and appropriate to preserve my religious misogyny is not my idea of religious liberty.

Religious expression in the United States is a beautiful mixture of the world’s best thinking, the collective of which is hard to find anywhere else in the world. We were among the first people on the planet to live in a place where such expression could unfold free of tyranny; not restricted by the ability or willingness of the elected to understand or tolerate a particular religious expression; and within a bubble of protection that asked only that our free exercise neither depend on the establishment of the government for its validity nor violate any other laws or civil rights.

It is within such a context that the United Church of Christ, within which my faith is now lived, gave free expression to its beliefs and called for an end to slavery, an end to the disenfranchisement of women and people of color, an end to state-sanctioned homophobia, an end to the stranglehold that management held over working class peoples. Long before the laws would catch up to us, we ordained the first Black pastor in America, the first female pastor, the first gay pastor, the first lesbian pastor, and the first transgender pastor. We wrote liturgies that called for our clergy to perform same-gender-loving marriages.

When North Carolina rewrote their Constitution to not only deprive same-gender-loving couples from the full rights that our government provides to heterosexual couples when they marry, but also criminalized the religious act of performing such marriages when allowed by other states, it was the United Church of Christ that brought a suit against the state. The federal Court ruled in our favor and called the amendment unconstitutional. It is one thing to ask the state to bend to your narrow religious beliefs. It is something else entirely to ask the state to imprison and fine the clergy of another religion; one that disagrees with you.

This is the religious liberty being propagated by the Religious Right.   They argue that they have no religious freedom unless their restrictive moral code is written into the Constitution. They argue that they have no religious liberty unless those whose religious ceremonies violate the sanctity of their precious theology are thrown in jail. What they want to call religious freedom is in fact the kind of oppressive religious tyranny that my ancestors left their homeland to escape.

I believe in legislation that protects religious liberty. Good laws have been written to protect the free expression of my, and others’, religion; and to limit the reach of government to establish anyone’s religious beliefs as normative.

We can’t allow the Religious Right to twist the meaning of religious liberty to the point that it becomes the means by which their theocratic vision is finally and fully realized. For decades now they have fought to erode or redefine the very freedoms the Constitution was written to protect. It would be unwise of us to either turn a blind eye to their machinations or to dismiss the ongoing effectiveness of their efforts.

Outcomes are hard to predict, but I think it is fair to say that the Religious Right is slowly but surely taking significant ground in the battle to turn America into a theocratic state, or a collection of theocratic mini-states, governed by the very narrowest of religious points of view. That they are doing it under the guise of protecting their religious liberty is the greatest of ironies. Their ambitions are to unseat the U.S. as the world’s safest place to explore and express one’s spiritual longings. If left unchecked by those of us who want to preserve an authentic rendering of religious freedom as envisioned by this country’s founders, they will succeed.

Frederick Clarkson knows this. His ongoing and now longstanding commitment as an investigative journalist to bring out into the open the more covert operations of the theocratic Right makes him eminently qualified to write about this. He sounds an alarm bell that not enough of us are paying much attention to. He not only asks that we learn everything we can about what the Religious Right is up to, he realizes that, unless those of us who want to preserve our longstanding freedoms act with as much sophistication and savvy as they do, we will always lose ground to them. As the late Rev. Dr. Andrew Weaver used to say, “They are playing tackle football, and we are playing touch. We are going to lose this game every time.”

I strongly urge you to not only read this remarkable report; I ask you to take seriously the actions Frederick Clarkson calls for within it. I intend to bring the United Church of Christ into this conversation. We have never been bystanders in the face of injustice when power colludes to deprive others of their liberty. We will not be in this time, either.

The Rev. John C. Dorhauer
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

Executive Summary

The evangelical Protestant Christian Right and U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are intensifying their campaign to carve out arenas of public life where religious institutions, individuals, and even businesses may evade civil rights and labor laws in the name of religious liberty. By creating zones of legal exemption, the Christian Right seeks to shrink the public sphere and the arenas within which the government has legitimacy to defend people’s rights, including reproductive, labor, and LGBTQ rights. In this, it is often aligned with the antigovernment strategy of free market libertarians and some business interests, who for a variety of reasons also seek to restrict arenas where government can legally act.

This conservative Christian alliance is challenging a century or more of social advances and many of the premises of the Enlightenment underlying the very definition of religious liberty in the United States. Its long-range goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law, in part by eroding pillars of undergirding religious pluralism that are integral to our constitutional democracy.

Since Political Research Associates’ March 2013 report, Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,* a remarkable string of cultural, legislative, and legal victories by the LGBTQ community have further animated the Right’s defensive strategy aimed at exempting conservative Christians from having to accept certain advances in human and civil rights. However, the Christian Right’s religious freedom strategy is part of its long-game and is not merely an anti-LGBTQ tactic.

Among this report’s findings:

  • The network of Christian Right legal institutions advancing the redefinition of religious freedom is growing in its capacity to affect legal, political and cultural change.
    • The Becket Fund, which has litigated landmark Supreme Court cases like Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor, grew 86 percent in just four years, from FY2009 to FY2012.
    • The national legal network Alliance Defending Freedom increased its annual revenues by $5 million during the same period (a 21% increase) while also expanding its effort to seek influential legal precedents in international courts.
    • In an important mainstreaming move, the conservative John Templeton Foundation funneled $1.6 million through the Becket Fund to establish a religious liberty clinic at Stanford University Law School. It opened in January 2013.
  • The Christian Right’s appropriation of religious freedom to justify discrimination is plainly visible in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, which for the first time recognized limited religious rights for closely held, private corporations to deny the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. This ruling has transformed not only federal jurisprudence, but the national conversation about the meaning and scope of religious freedom. One result was that the religious beliefs of the owners trumped the consciences and health interests of their employees.
  • The Christian Right is seeking to undermine and evade civil rights law beyond the courts by “religifying” organizations. This means rewriting mission statements, contracts, and job descriptions to claim that the entire organization or jobs within it are essentially religious in nature and subject to the longstanding exemption of clergy from the Civil Rights Act. Under this logic, a religified business or nonprofit would have the right to discriminate against an LGBTQ client, or others with whom they may religiously disagree, by excluding people who do not conform to their doctrines. The groups promoting this tactic, such as Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Institute, have issued handbooks to help organizations protect against “dangerous antireligious attacks.”
  • Religification efforts are attempting to build on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the religious duties of a teacher fired in a discriminatory way insulated the mainline church school from antidiscrimination laws under the longstanding clergy exemption. The ruling opened the door to expanding the definition of ministry, so that many more institutions – and their employees – can be exempted from the protections of the law.
  • The Christian Right is seeking to pass state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) that would allow for-profit businesses to seek religious exemptions in the way the Hobby Lobby case made possible under the federal RFRA. The Right has succeeded in Mississippi, and, controversially, in Indiana, where the state RFRA was revised under pressure to make clear that it did not justify discrimination against LGBTQ people.
  • Today’s arguments echo those made by opponents of civil rights advances for African Americans in the 20th century – notably the fundamentalist Bob Jones University when it defended its policy against interracial dating because of its religious beliefs. In a major defeat for the nascent Christian Right, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the Greenville, SC, college was not entitled to a federal tax exemption if it maintained this racist policy because the government’s interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education trumped the school’s claim to the First Amendment right to religious freedom.
  • President Obama has failed to rescind a George W. Bush-era legal memo that allows federal contractors and grantees to discriminate in their hiring on religious freedom grounds.
  • The Christian Right has carved out these victories following decades of building its political and institutional power. To avoid fighting within its frame and definition of religious liberty, progressives and their allies must build their own long game. One of the ways to do this is to avoid dualisms that distort the issue and play to the Christian Right framing, such as suggesting that LGBTQ civil rights (or reproductive rights) and religious freedom are somehow mutually exclusive.

While winning many victories, the Christian Right has lost some important battles in its campaign to redefine religious freedom. This is particularly so when other religious groups have taken the lead in opposing the Right. The United Church of Christ successfully sued to overturn a 2012 amendment to the North Carolina state constitution asserting not only that same-sex marriages were invalid, but effectively criminalizing same-sex marriage ceremonies. Coalitions involving religious groups have also thwarted the passage of state RFRAs that justify discrimination in Georgia and North Carolina. Elsewhere, workers and pension advocates took the lead. In December 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that the St. Peter’s Catholic health system in New Jersey was not exempt on religious grounds from following federal law protecting pensioners and that it needed to fully fund its pension.

Contrary to the vision of much of the Christian Right, religious freedom is for everyone. We need fresh perspectives and coalitions to meet these challenges. Other sectors of society, from moderate Republicans to civil rights and labor activists, to religious and nonreligious organizations, need to discover how to do this, even though they may not be accustomed to working together.  This will certainly mean envisioning and acting on short-term and long-term strategies, both inside and outside of the courts. We need 21st century coalitions and strategies to meet the challenges and opportunities of our time.

Among our other recommendations, we must,

  • Reclaim religious freedom as a fundamental democratic value. This means embracing religious freedom as emphasizing the equality of all people, including everyone’s right to believe and to practice faith (or not) as we will, and to change our minds – free from the undue influence of powerful religious institutions and government. The right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press, the other two elements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Increase our capacity to respond to religious freedom-related issues. This would include but not be limited to resourcing a network of researchers, writers, political thinkers, and scholars to develop and inform strategy with respect to religious liberty and civil rights.
  • Expand and refresh historic alliances that have extended civil and labor rights in the 20th century more widely and deeply than at any other time in our history.
  • Expand celebrations of Religious Freedom Day on January 16th and other events to offer a clear, consistent, positive, and historically rooted alternative to the Christian Right’s redefinition of religious liberty.
  • Counter misinformation. Many conservative religious liberty claims rely on falsehoods, bogus history, and scare tactics. For example, clergy have never been forced under the law to perform any marriage of which they do not approve.
  • Urge candidates and elected officials to end legal justifications for all forms of discrimination under the rubric of religious freedom. This includes demanding that President Obama end discrimination by faith-based contractors justified by the Bush-era legal memo.
  • Consider international human rights standards regarding religious freedom and the rights of conscience. They are very strong and are consistent with a domestic agenda, and are part of the growing international dimension to this struggle.
  • Develop electoral answers to the Right’s long-term efforts to control various levels of government.

For the full list of recommendations, please see the Conclusion and Recommendations section below.


Religious freedom is a central issue of our time. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that just because they, the leading politicians of their day, hammered out some remarkable foundational language, that did not mean that it would be a settled matter.1 History and current events have proved them out.

Over the past decade, the evangelical Protestant Christian Right and American Roman Catholic bishops forged a lasting alliance to carve out vast arenas of American life where religious institutions, individuals, and even businesses would be free to discriminate, evade labor laws, and otherwise evade federal civil rights laws in the name of religious liberty.  Together these conservative forces seek to challenge not only a century or more of social advances, but many of the premises of the Enlightenment underlying the very definition of religious liberty in the United States.

Their goal is to impose a conservative Christian social order inspired by religious law.  To achieve this goal, they seek to remove religious freedom as an integral part of religious pluralism and constitutional democracy, and redefine it in Orwellian fashion to justify discrimination by an ever wider array of “religified” institutions and businesses.

By carving out legal zones of exemption from antidiscrimination laws and regulations, the Christian Right seeks to shrink the public sphere and the arenas within which the government has legitimacy to defend people’s rights, including reproductive and LGBTQ rights.  In this, it is aligned with the antigovernment strategy of free market libertarians and some powerful business interests, who also seek to restrict arenas where government can legally act.

Since Political Research Associates’ March 2013 report, Redefining Religious Liberty:  The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rightse,2 historic changes in the political and legal landscape have accompanied dramatic growth among the key actors of the Christian Right that we detail in this report.  The remarkable string of cultural, legislative, and legal victories by the LGBTQ community have further animated the Right’s defensive strategy aimed at exempting conservative Christians from having to accept certain advances in human and civil rights.

Since PRA published Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights, historic changes in the political and legal landscape have accompanied dramatic growth among the key actors of the Christian Right.

Since PRA published “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” historic changes in the political and legal landscape have accompanied dramatic growth among the key actors of the Christian Right.

The Christian Right has sought to undermine and evade labor law by carefully building on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOCThe court ruled that the religious duties of a teacher fired in a discriminatory way insulated the mainline church school from antidiscrimination laws under the longstanding exemption of clergy under the Civil Rights Act.  It opened the door to expanding the definition of “ministry,” so that many more employees can be exempted from the protections of the law.

The Christian Right is already actively engaged in doing this – via a tactic termed “religification” by which an organization rewrites mission statements, contracts, and job descriptions in an attempt to exempt institutions from the law in as many ways as possible.  All this will undoubtedly face further court tests. But religification is already happening, as we will see.

For those of us who value religious pluralism and equality, it can be challenging to imagine that the Christian Right can appropriate and redefine religious freedom as justifying discrimination.3

Yet it is plainly visible in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling, which for the first time recognized limited religious rights for closely held, private corporations to deny the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.  This ruling has transformed not only federal jurisprudence, but the national conversation about the meaning and scope of religious freedom.  One result was that the religious beliefs of the owners trumped the beliefs and health interests of their employees.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, VA.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, VA. Courtesy of ComputerGuy via Flickr

This and other legislative and judicial wins discussed in this report have altered our public discussion and policy on a wide range of issues, from access to abortion, to health services for children of immigrants who are victims of sex abuse, to matters of LGBTQ discrimination, including access to government services for routine processing of marriage licenses for legal same-sex marriage.

The ripple effects of all this appear almost daily in the news as major politicians seek to prove their conservative Christian bona fides.  “I believe that 2016 is going to be a religious-liberty election,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared before a raucous crowd of some 7,000 Southern Baptists in October 2015.  “As these threats grow darker and darker and darker, they are waking people up here in Texas and all across this country.”4  Religious liberty was the key theme of many Christian Right events in 2015, including the national Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., the World Congress of Families held in Salt Lake City, and campaign rallies of Sen. Ted Cruz.  This is the new normal.

But most everyone to the left of the Religious Right is behind the curve in the face of these historic developments – from progressive issue organizations, the broad liberal/left, and the major political parties, including moderate Republicans.  The social justice community broadly speaking is also impeded by the perennial problem of issue and political silos (e.g. dividing reproductive justice vs. LGBTQ rights v. economic justice) even though it confronts a far more integrated program and strategy on the part of the Right.

The Christian Right’s ability to move its agenda has greatly increased in recent years, thanks in large part to the construction of a vast organizational infrastructure.

This report will outline the history of that strategy and recent trends, particularly in the legal arena, detail the growth of key Christian Right organizations carrying out that strategy, highlight promising countertrends, and suggest some ways forward.  As we will see, the Christian Right’s ability to move its agenda has greatly increased in recent years, thanks in large part to the construction of a vast organizational infrastructure of educational institutions, political and cultural organizations, and nonprofit legal networks, as well as key alliances within the Republican Party and the wider conservative movement.  We highlight the legal infrastructure because the opportunities created by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions are among the main fruits of the Christian Right’s work of recent decades.

Let’s first state what religious freedom is so we can better understand how the Christian Right is appropriating it to advance their agenda. Religious freedom is the right of individual conscience; to believe as we will and to change our minds freely, without undue influence from government or from powerful religious institutions.  It also means the right to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints.  The right to believe differently from the rich and the powerful is a prerequisite for free speech and a free press, the other two elements of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  That is one reason why religious freedom is often called the First Freedom.  Religious freedom is integral to the idea of separation of church and state.  Separation exists not to limit religious expression, but to safeguard against creeping religious supremacism and the theocratic temptations that have persisted throughout American history into the present.

This report is a call to people of goodwill to consider that as a society, we are on a slippery slope towards the kinds of factionalism that concerned the Framers of the Constitution.  It is time for us to take a deep breath and consider the implications. 


The Christian Right’s power to reframe religious liberty as a justification of discrimination builds on decades of mobilization.  It had to recover from its great defeat, the case of Bob Jones University v. United States. 

Mobilizing to discriminate in Bob Jones

As recently as the 1980s, Christian Right activists defended racial segregation by claiming that restrictions on their ability to discriminate violated their First Amendment right to religious freedom.  They lost in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1983, Bob Jones University v. United States, that has shaped politics every since.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Greenville, SC-based, Christian fundamentalist school was not entitled to its federal tax exemption if it maintained its policy against interracial dating.

Bob Jones University entrance, Greenville, SC.

Bob Jones University entrance, Greenville, SC. Courtesy of John Foxe of English Wikipedia.

The case, which began during the Nixon administration, became a cause célèbre of the then-budding Christian Right as it advanced over the course of a decade.  The late conservative strategist Paul Weyrich and historian Randall Balmer, among others, credited Bob Jones as the catalyst that politicized a wide range of conservative evangelicals.  The “New Right” used Bob Jones as a political cudgel against Democratic President Jimmy Carter, turning many evangelicals against one of their own and contributing to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.5

Instead of African Americans being discriminated against by Bob Jones, the university argued it was the party being discriminated against in being prevented from executing its First Amendment rights.  The Supreme Court disagreed, declaring, “Government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education…[which] substantially outweighs whatever burden denial of tax benefits places on [the University’s] exercise of their religious beliefs.”  The Court made clear, however, that its verdict dealt “only with religious schools – not with churches or other purely religious institutions.” 6

As Balmer and others have shown, even before the issues of abortion and homosexuality became the policy priorities of a newly politicized Christian Right, its leaders fought the perceived threat of racial equality at conservative Christian academies by claiming their religious freedom to discriminate.  This legacy should remind us that the Right’s religious liberty campaigns mobilize old arguments around new targets, and that their agenda extends beyond questions of contraception coverage, or marriage and nondiscrimination in the LGBTQ context. 

Building a political infrastructure for a counteroffensive

In the decades since Bob Jones, the Christian Right has catalyzed a conservative political realignment reflected in many ways in the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.  One might reasonably wonder whether there might have been a different ruling in Bob Jones had Hobby Lobby been decided first.  However, it should also be noted that the court underscored that Hobby Lobby was not constructed to allow for religious justification for racial discrimination and their decision “provides no such shield.”  7

The mobilization around Bob Jones was part of the Christian Right’s long-term political development, when it pulled poorly mobilized evangelicals into civic engagement with visions of Godly governance.  Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and its successors emphasized electoral development, making the Christian Right an integral part of the GOP.  Beyond turning out current registered voters, they accomplished this by expanding the voter pool of conservative Christians and developing a class of people with the relevant skill sets and experiences to contend for power, particularly in their drive to become the dominant faction in the Republican Party.8  The Christian Right’s hands on the levers of power in government, either directly or by proxy through Republican alliances, made the job of civil rights and labor advocates that much harder.

Journalist Matthew Yglesias published an influential article in 2015 that paints a stark picture of how growing Republican control is creating opportunities for its Christian Right base.  He observes that “70 percent of state legislatures, more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state…are in Republican hands. And, of course, Republicans control both chambers of Congress.”9

It is a trend that appears likely to increase.  The Christian Right’s electoral plans for 2016 have long been in evidence. Here’s one brief example.  David Lane of the American Renewal Project has been developing Christian Right organizing and electoral capacity within the Republican Party for many years.  He is seeking to run 1,000 conservative Christian clergy for office at all levels in the next few years.  He claims to have held training conferences for more than 2,000 clergy in 2015 in the hows and whys of mobilizing their congregations for electoral impact. 10  Lane told Reuters in December 2015 that he was halfway to his goal of getting 1,000 pastors to run in down-ticket races.11

Then and Now: Flyer for Rally for Religious Liberty at Bob Jones University, No. 2015.

Then and Now: Flyer for Rally for Religious Liberty at Bob Jones University, No. 2015. Courtesy of rsvp/rally/

Such campaigns seek not just to win elections, but to engage conservative Christians as a self-identified electoral force of lasting consequence.  Lane’s efforts are underwritten in part with $10 million from the families of Texas billionaires Farris and Dan Wilks.  The Wilks family has contributed another $15 million to a super PAC supporting the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).12  This super PAC is led by Christian Nationalist author and political operative, David Barton. 13

In contrast, Yglesias warns, “Democrats have nothing at all in the works to redress their crippling weakness down the ballot.”  The failure of everyone to the left of the Religious Right to develop an effective electoral response to all this is especially remarkable because journalists and other political observers have seen the situation developing for years.14

Manhattan Declaration: A Strategic Turning Point 

A transformational moment in the contemporary Christian Right’s approach to religious freedom was the November 2009 publication of the Manhattan Declaration:  A Call to Christian Conscience – a manifesto linking three interrelated themes of “freedom of religion,” “sanctity of life,” and “dignity of marriage.”15  The culmination of decades of theological and political development, conservative Roman Catholic and evangelical strategists (joined by junior partners in the Mormon Church and Orthodox Christianity) found sufficient common theological and political ground to wage not only the short term battles of the culture wars, but to envision a 21st century notion of Christian cultural conservatism – and a way to get there.  These actors in various combinations, and sometimes in alliance with elements of Orthodox Judaism, have been tactical partners over time.  This coalition was nonetheless a real achievement that crystallized a strategic direction deploying “religious freedom” to roll back advances in LGBTQ rights and reproductive justice.

Robert P. George is the primary author of "The Manhattan Declaration."

Robert P. George is the primary author of “The Manhattan Declaration.” Courtesy of Roanoke College via Flickr. License:

Originally signed by 150 Christian Right leaders (followed by a half million others), it has broadened, deepened, and sustained the Roman Catholic/evangelical alliance that led the culture wars for more than a generation.  Indicative of how far they had come in transcending centuries of distrust, 50 sitting bishops, archbishops, and cardinals – not merely a token prelate or two – joined top evangelical leaders in signing the Declaration.

The Declaration seeks to unify, rally, and mobilize the Christian Right:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right – and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths.  We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. [Emphasis in the original.]

The document essentially defines religious freedom as being only for people who believe as they do, and as under attack by those who believe differently.  They declare,

Christians confess that God alone is Lord of the conscience.  Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience.  No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions.  What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well.

This foundational idea expresses the rationale for religious exemptions from the law.  Although published in 2009, the Declaration reasonably anticipated one day having to respect the equality of LGBTQ people in, among other things, marriage and employment, and the broad development of antidiscrimination laws generally.

The Declarationists also foresaw further wrangling over the question of complicity in abortion via efforts to

weaken or eliminate conscience clauses, and therefore to compel pro-life institutions (including religiously affiliated hospitals and clinics), and pro-life physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other health care professionals, to refer for abortions and, in certain cases, even to perform or participate in abortions.  We see it in the use of antidiscrimination statutes to force religious institutions, businesses, and service providers…to comply with activities they judge to be deeply immoral or go out of business.”16

The "Manhattan Declaration" essentially defines religious freedom as being only for people who believe as the authors do, and as under attack by those who believe differently.

The “Manhattan Declaration” essentially defines religious freedom as being only for people who believe as the authors do, and as under attack by those who believe differently.

Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, explained that although he abhors Roman Catholic doctrine, “we are facing an inevitable and culture-determining decision on the three issues centrally identified in this statement.  I also believe that we will experience a significant loss of Christian churches, denominations, and institutions in this process.  There is every good reason to believe that the freedom to conduct Christian ministry according to Christian conviction is being subverted and denied before our eyes.”17

One key message of the Declaration is that when conservative Christians are required to honor federal civil rights laws, profound opposition may be required. Invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Declarationists called for “resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”18  Their promise of resistance has since been reiterated many times by top Christian Right leaders, such as Rick Warren, Tony Perkins, and Robert P. George.19  Others have raised the possibility of violence.20

George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and prominent Roman Catholic neoconservative, originated the Declaration.  A key movement strategist, George is also the founder and guiding light of a number of related institutions that have adopted the Declaration’s issue trinity, including the National Organization for Marriage, the Witherspoon Institute, the American Principles Project, and American Principles Action.  Signers of the Declaration include most of the leaders of the organizations mentioned in this report.

The three themes of the Declaration now frame the agendas of the major organizations of the Christian Right from the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and CitizenLink (the political arm of Focus on the Family) with its three dozen state affiliates,21 to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  The formula promises to define their common platform for the foreseeable future.

On the eve of the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the Supreme Court that legalized marriage equality, Mat Staver, founder and leader of another Christian Right legal agency, Liberty Counsel, noted that the Declaration “anticipated what lay ahead” and that now “the future is here, and we are facing a fundamental conflict between the laws of Caesar and the laws of God.”22


PRA’s 2013 report Redefining Religious Liberty exposed key organizations’ message framing, capacities, and goals. Since then, two major Christian Right law firms featured in that report, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and ADF, have played historic roles in advancing their agenda in transformational decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The other major trend since 2013:  These and other Christian Right groups promoting “religious freedom” have grown in revenues and influence on the national stage, adding millions to their annual budgets in two or three years (see boxes). For smaller outfits like the Becket Fund and Liberty Counsel, this infusion substantially expanded their reach.

It is worth considering in this context that over the past three decades, Christian Right-oriented law schools have arisen that developed much legal talent for the long haul. Pat Robertson founded Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach (1986) and the late Jerry Falwell established a law school at his Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA (2004).  In 1999, conservative Roman Catholic (and Domino’s Pizza magnate) Thomas Monaghan founded Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, FL.

This growing Christian Right legal infrastructure was fully engaged in these key legal developments since our 2013 report.

PROFILE: Alliance Defending Freedom (click to expand)

AllianceLogoAlliance Defending Freedom is a national legal network headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, led since its founding by Alan Sears.  It has long had a close relationship with the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family and its national political arm, CitizenLink, along with its three dozen state affiliates.  As such it has been a vital hub in the development of legal and political talent.

ADF grew 21 percent from FY 2009 to FY 2012, increasing gross revenues from $34.7 million to $39.8 million.  ADF litigated Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Burwell, which the Supreme Court later consolidated with what became the historic Hobby Lobby case.

ADF employs around 50 lawyers and has provided continuing legal education training to more than 1,800 attorneys.  Since 2000, its Blackstone Legal Fellowships have trained more than 1,600 first-year law students from more than 225 law schools in 21 countries.  These internships aim to inspire a “distinctly Christian worldview in every area of law, and particularly in the areas of public policy and religious liberty.”

Thus it is fair to ask: What is this distinct worldview?  While the Blackstone program includes “natural law” as part of its legal and “worldview” curriculum, its recommended reading list features books by leading Christian Reconstructionist authors who advocate for transforming society according to “Biblical principles” in all areas of life, including politics and government.117 Numerous Blackstone alumni have risen to positions of influence in state and federal courts, the federal government, the United Nations, and international agencies.118

The ADF’s model Student Privacy Policy offers a highly individualized notion of religious exemption from civil rights laws, claiming, “Allowing students to use opposite-sex restrooms and locker rooms would seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ right of conscience, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning.”  Its use of the term “opposite-sex” is clearly aimed at transgender students or in response to the introduction of trans-inclusive policies.119

Unsurprisingly, an international dimension to the struggle has emerged, with ADF launching a Global Initiative in 2010 to wage an “international fight for religious liberty for Christians and establishing a larger ADF footprint to accomplish this mission.”  ADF says it funds “human rights legal work” in Europe, North America, and South Asia.120  In so doing, it has worked in national and regional courts as well as the United Nations system. Since opening a regional office in Vienna, Austria, ADF has worked across Europe (and increasingly in Latin America) on issues of abortion, euthanasia, registration of churches, and homeschooling. In FY2012, ADF spent $6 million to build alliances with religious and secular organizations that share its interests. ADF’s 2013 annual report states:

ADF works with our allies to develop effective approaches to legal cases that could result in important state, federal, and U.S.  Supreme Court and foreign court precedents.  Our most important example of this is found in court actions upholding voter initiatives affirming the traditional definition of marriage, by defending the rule of law in our courts and governmental bodies.  ADF’s alliance has been on the leading edge of this effort.

As Gillian Kane reported in PRA’s quarterly, The Public Eye, this strategy of gaining precedents in international courts is working, with U.S. courts noting the cases in their decisions.121

PROFILE: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (click to expand)

becketfundThe Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, founded in 1994, grew 86 percent in just four years, with a gross revenue increase from $2.7 million in FY2009 to $4.75 million in FY2012.  It litigated and won the landmark cases of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Hobby Lobby Stores v. Burwell, and Holt v. Hobbs.  These cases are among the most important religious liberty cases in recent American history, and, as noted, challenge contemporary understandings of the First Amendment, with implications that are just beginning to be felt.

Its case docket includes seven that are follow-ups to the Hobby Lobby case, now consolidated into one that will reach the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.122  The case, now named Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell, challenges the procedure for seeking an exemption to the contraception mandate under the Affordable Care Act.  The Little Sisters, a Roman Catholic order, does not want to be “complicit” in abortion and contraception by having to fill out the simple form requesting an exemption from the law on grounds that this would facilitate the very acts to which it objects.  Becket’s cases will be presented by Paul Clement, Solicitor General during the administration of George W. Bush, who also argued the Hobby Lobby case.123  ADF has litigated two of the seven cases.124

In addition to its remarkable domestic record, the Becket Fund frequently litigates at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.  The ECHR is the primary international court designed to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights.125

PROFILE: Liberty Counsel (click to expand)

Liberty Counsel logoLiberty Counsel, founded in 1989 and headquartered in Orlando, Florida, is headed by Mat Staver, the (now former) longtime dean of the Liberty University School of Law.  (Liberty University is a rightwing evangelical school founded by the late Jerry Falwell.) Liberty Counsel grew 17 percent in three years, with an increase in gross revenue from $3.58 million in FY2010 to $4.20 million in FY2013.  Liberty Counsel has several related tax-exempt organizations, perhaps the most important of which is its political action arm, called Liberty Counsel Action (which is one of the organizational sponsors of the annual Values Voters Summit, the premier political conference of the Christian Right).  It grew 39 percent in two years, with an increase in gross revenue from $1.44 million in FY2011 to $2 million in FY2013.  Staver is perhaps best known for his legal defense of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of a federal court order.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated Liberty Counsel as a hate group, describing it as “a legal organization advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.”126

PROFILE: Stanford University Law School Religious Liberty Clinic (click to expand)

stanford bannerIn an important mainstreaming move, the huge conservative philanthropy John Templeton Foundation funneled $1.6 million through the Becket Fund to establish a religious liberty clinic at Stanford University Law School. It opened in January 2013.  “In framing our docket, we decided we would represent the believers” rather than governments, the clinic’s founding director, James Sonne, told The New York Times:  “Our job is religious liberty rather than freedom from religion.”127

Douglas Laycock, a professor of law at the University of Virginia who keynoted the clinic’s opening, said it is not a religious liberty clinic in the full sense of the term. It is not litigating the separation of church and state, but instead focusing on the “free-exercise” of religion.128  The clinic has filed 13 amicus briefs, including two on behalf of the Becket Fund; the clinic often files amicus briefs on cases in which the Becket Fund has also filed briefs.129

PROFILE: The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund (click to expand)

freedom of conscience defense fund logoThe Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund in Rancho Santa Fe, California, was founded in 2012. By FY2013 it reported gross revenues of $1.33 million.  Charles Limandri, President and Chief Counsel, provides legal services at the trial level to protect religious liberty and free speech.  The Roman Catholic-oriented organization often works with attorneys affiliated with Alliance for Defending Freedom.  It is providing pro-bono representation for David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress, the producer of the infamous anti-Planned Parenthood videos released in 2015.130

PROFILE: The Liberty Institute (click to expand)

Liberty InstituteThe Liberty Institute headquartered in Plano, Texas, was founded in 1972 as the Free Market Foundation.  It has since transformed into a national religious liberty advocacy group, pro bono legal network, and funding agency.  Headed by Kelly Shackleford, the Institute more than doubled its gross revenues in two years, from $3.63 million in FY2011 to $8.4 million in FY2013.  It is currently best known for the publication of manuals for “religification” of churches and other institutions as a form of legal inoculation against civil rights lawsuits.

institutional impact

Federal Religious Freedom Cases

The Hobby Lobby chain of retail arts and craft stores based in Oklahoma City, OK, won an important religious freedom case for the Christian Right.

The Hobby Lobby chain of retail arts and craft stores based in Oklahoma City, OK, won an important religious freedom case for the Christian Right. Courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr. License:

In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case opposing the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that “closely held” for-profit companies with few shareholders have religious freedom – a right of the kind normally applied to individuals or religious organizations,23 and that this right may be applied in matters related to certain regulations of the Affordable Care Act.24  In so ruling, the Court gave some businesses the right to encroach on the religious liberty and workers’ rights of its employees while declaring exemptions from the law for themselves.

While commonly referred to as Hobby Lobby, it was actually a consolidated case involving Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell.  ADF represented Conestoga Wood Specialties and the Becket Fund represented Hobby Lobby.  Often overlooked is that the Court also allowed the religious views of the owners of these companies to trump medical science in claiming that the four contraceptives at issue – two kinds of birth control pills and two kinds of intrauterine devices – were abortifacients.25  An amicus brief submitted by medical associations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, stated that notwithstanding the personal views of the company owners regarding when life begins,

The medical and scientific communities define pregnancy as beginning upon implantation. While personal beliefs may dictate individual choices and values, they cannot alter established scientific standards and terminology:  abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy.  Thus, the term ‘abortifacient’ refers to — and should only be used in connection with — drugs or devices that end a pregnancy, not those that prevent it.26

The result is that Hobby Lobby, et al. redefines what pregnancy is, and therefore what abortion is. This may become a further issue with religious claims once again trumping the religious rights and health needs of women as further litigation tests the reach of Hobby Lobby.  Feminist author Patricia Miller writes that although it was evangelicals who defeated the contraception mandate, they had a lot of Roman Catholic help. Indeed, the Catholic bishops had long “sought a broad-based conscience clause that would allow any employer or insurer to refuse to cover contraceptives for any religious or moral objection.”  They may now have one. 27

Americans United for Separation of Church and State used the hashtag #FreedomFraud to comment on the Hobby Lobby case.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State used the hashtag #FreedomFraud to comment on the Hobby Lobby case. Courtesy of

In its decision, the Court relied on the bipartisan 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was intended to protect individuals against government actions.  RFRA set a high standard in which policymakers may not “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion unless they can show a “compelling governmental interest” and that the policy was the “least-restrictive means” of achieving it.  Hobby Lobby reinterprets that standard to allow not just individuals but third parties such as businesses to make claims of religious exemption from various laws.  As Professor Marci A. Hamilton of Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law noted, this interpretation of RFRA “dramatically increases the rights of religious believers against all laws as compared to the First Amendment.” 28

Hobby Lobby also relied upon a less well known law unanimously passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Court cited RLUIPA in the first paragraph of its Hobby Lobby decision.

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 that was widely deemed a reasonable accommodation of religion also relied on RLUIPA.  Holt v. Hobbs (litigated by the Becket Fund, and argued by Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School29), allowed an Arkansas prison inmate to grow a half-inch beard (even though beards were against prison regulations) because his Muslim faith required it.  The ruling, which relied on RLUIPA, was widely deemed a reasonable and uncontroversial accommodation of prisoner Holt’s religion.  It was, however, a significant judicial ratification of the language of RFRA and RLUIPA expanding the scope meant by the “exercise of religion.” 30

State-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts

The original purpose of the federal RFRA was to restore individual religious liberty, seen to have been taken away in the 1990 Supreme Court case Employment Division v. Smith.  This case involved Native Americans denied state unemployment benefits in Oregon because they had been fired as state drug counselors for using the illegal drug peyote in traditional religious ceremonies.  The Court ruled that they had no legal recourse, so Congress in 1993 sought to narrowly set a standard essentially reversing the Smith decision via RFRA.

After the Supreme Court limited the scope of RFRA to the federal government (in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores),31 civil rights activists got versions of the legislation passed in 21 states.  Most of these were identical or similar to the original federal RFRA, but in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, Christian Right groups sought to pass state-level RFRAs that would allow third parties such as businesses to claim religious exemptions from laws.  This was particularly aimed at businesses that did not want to participate in any way in same-sex marriage.  In 2014, the legislation failed in several states, but passed in Mississippi, where it remains on the books.  In 2015, state RFRAs passed only in Indiana and Arkansas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting in Hobby Lobby, warned, “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”  Her concerns were realized in the efforts to insert Hobby Lobby-ized provisions into state RFRAs. 32

A national controversy erupted in Indiana in March 2015 following the passage of a state RFRA which seemed to justify anti-marriage equality discrimination.  (Nineteen original sponsors of RFRA were so outraged by this trend that they withdrew their support for the act.33 )The bill was modified in April to ensure that was not the case.34  A standard RFRA has so far failed to pass the legislature in Michigan.  Instead, the state enacted legislation in June 2015 that allowed adoption agencies that contract with the state to decline service to prospective parents on religious grounds.  The principal beneficiaries of the legislation were the evangelical Bethany Christian Services and the Michigan Catholic Conference, which together reportedly provide 25 to 30 percent of adoptions in the state.35  Catholic agencies in several states, beginning in Massachusetts a decade ago, previously withdrew from providing state contracted adoption services rather than conform to state law upholding LGBTQ equality and recognizing same-sex marriages. 36  These are the kinds of exemption controversies we are likely to see for the foreseeable future, following from other such efforts to legalize LGBTQ discrimination without consequences for the discriminating party.37

Obergefell v. Hodges

Supporters en route to the Marriage Equality Rally on the day of Obergefell v. Hodges case oral hearings at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C., April 28th 2015

Supporters en route to the Marriage Equality Rally on the day of Obergefell v. Hodges case oral hearings at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C., April 28th 2015. Courtesy of Elvert Barnes Protest Photography via Flickr. License:

The landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage nationally in June 2015 was a major defeat for the Religious Right, but one for which they were prepared.  As we will see, their political and legal contingency plans are now appearing all over the country, as activists invoke new forms of conscientious objection, and private spaces and places are being turned into legal bastions against the wider culture in which abortion and contraception are legal, and LGBTQ equality is mainstreamed.  The Christian Right is now busy seeking to limit the implementation of the decision and to make it as unworkable as possible, in part by attempting to subject it to a death of a thousand exemptions.

Fighting for Religious Freedom in North Carolina

A pivotal North Carolina court case from 2014, General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, demonstrates that the Christian Right does not get to define Christianity and that LGBTQ equality can, in fact, express the sacred.

At issue was a 2012 amendment to the North Carolina state constitution asserting that same-sex marriages were invalid.  Together with the state’s general statutes, this amendment effectively criminalized the performance of same-sex marriage ceremonies. The upshot of the subsequent legal fight was that the million-member United Church of Christ (UCC), a mainline Protestant denomination with more than 5,000 local churches, won a clear victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty.  The UCC engaged the foundational values of religious equality and equal protection under the law that bind this diverse and often fractious nation.

“By depriving the Plaintiffs of the freedom to perform religious marriage ceremonies or to marry,” the UCC complaint read in part, “North Carolina stigmatizes Plaintiffs and their religious beliefs.”  The complainants also argued that the law relegated same-sex couples “to second-class status.”  Along with same-sex couples, plaintiffs also included the Alliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and clergy from several traditions, including Episcopal, Lutheran, and Unitarian Universalist.

The complaint continued:

The laws forbidding same-sex marriage tell Plaintiffs that their religious views are invalid and same-sex relationships are less worthy, thus humiliating each Plaintiff and denigrating the integrity and closeness of families and religious organizations, depriving Plaintiffs of the inclusive religious community of family units they wish to establish.38

Had the amendment stood, UCC clergy and others who routinely perform same-sex marriage ceremonies could have been subject to criminal prosecution.  “We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs,” UCC General Counsel Donald C. Clark, Jr. told The New York Times, “but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices.”39

After a complicated legal trajectory, U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. issued a final decision after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the state in another case.  He wrote, “It is clear [that these laws,] threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”

Cogburn’s ruling underscores an idea that transcends the issues of the day:  that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism.

Since then, a fresh suit filed in 2015 challenges the constitutionality of a related North Carolina state law.40  This law allows magistrates responsible for performing marriages to not only self-exempt themselves for religious reasons, but spend state funds in support of their choice.  The state would spend money to bring in a willing magistrate to perform the wedding or if necessary, issue the license if every official in a given jurisdiction declines to perform a ceremony.  The legislation also pays retirement benefits for the time out of office of those who resigned as a matter of conscientious objection but were later reappointed after the law took effect.  Among the plaintiffs are a same-sex couple from the Reisinger case and an interracial couple barred from marrying in the era of miscegenation laws.

About 5 percent of North Carolina’s roughly 670 magistrates had filed recusal paperwork as of September 2015.41 Utah is the only other state currently allowing religious-objection opt outs for court officials.


In the ever-shifting terrain of the so-called culture wars, the Christian Right is seeking to minimize its losses and consolidate its reserve strengths by seeking individual, institutional, and territorial exemptions from laws and regulations on religious grounds so they do not have to follow the same rules as the rest of society.  These overlapping exemptions threaten to give rise to theocratic zones of control violating the religious liberty of those who find themselves under their sway.  By opposing government sovereignty, the zones also would feed into the antigovernment efforts of free marketeers who oppose government regulation.

Individual Exemptions

In the United States, religious liberty historically has been considered first and foremost a right for individuals.  Individuals are free to believe as they will, shielded from the undue influence of powerful religious institutions or the government.  This was not intended as an exemption from the law.  Everyone from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that freedom of conscience is limited in some areas of conduct.  But the religious and political Right are increasingly turning to civil libertarian ideas to seek exemption from the legal norms of society, even at the expense of the rights of others.

President Obama and Pope Francis in Washington D.C., September 2015

President Obama and Pope Francis in Washington D.C., September 2015. Image courtesy of the White House..

Supported by Christian Right institutions, individual pharmacists and health workers have sought exemptions to avoid being “complicit” in abortion and contraception. Similarly, government workers and elected officials have sought to gain exemption from executing same-sex marriages.   Sometimes they make headlines.  Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis went to jail (briefly) rather than have her office issue same-sex marriage licenses. Some probate judges in Alabama invoked a segregation-era law to stop issuing all marriage licenses in their counties to avoid issuing same-sex marriage licenses: an all-White Alabama legislature passed the 1961 law making it optional for counties to issue marriage licenses, so judges could avoid issuing licenses to interracial couples.  As of October 2015, at least nine of Alabama’s 67 counties have quit issuing marriage licenses since the June Obergefell decision.42

Legislatures are also weighing in.  In North Carolina, the Family Policy Council (the state political affiliate of Focus on the Family) wrote a bill allowing clerk magistrates and registers of deeds to ask a judge to “recuse” them from performing all marriages by stating that performance of same-sex marriages would violate their religious beliefs.  It passed over the governor’s veto and, as mentioned, is now in the courts.  Even though the reason for the recusal may be same-sex marriage, the aim is apparently to avoid charges of discrimination since these elected officials would recuse themselves from participating in all marriages.43

Even before Obergefell legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the Christian Right was preparing conscientious objection strategies based on existing law in several states.  In 2012, for example, ADF advised that officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses in Maine, Maryland, and Washington did not have to violate their religious conscience by personally issuing licenses to same-sex couples.  They said existing state laws allowed them to delegate responsibility for issuing the licenses to others who do not have conscience-based objections.44  No one took them up on it, and not all states have such provisions for conscientious objection.  But the utility of the idea as a tactic became clear as marriage equality advanced.

Pope Francis highlighted religious freedom and the right to conscientious objection during his widely celebrated U.S. visit.  The pontiff discussed religious liberty during his visit to the White House, in his address to Congress, and especially in his speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.45  On the flight back to Rome, Terry Moran, Chief Foreign Correspondent for ABC News, asked him about government officials who refuse to perform their duties because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.  The Pope replied that “conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right.”46  Soon afterward, news broke of his secret meeting with Kim Davis (which has since led to much speculation, confusion, and controversy,47 with the Vatican asserting “his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”).48

Religious Freedom rally in Washington D.C., 2012.

Religious Freedom rally in Washington D.C., 2012. Courtesy of American Life League via Flickr. License:

There was no ambiguity in Pope Francis’ visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor while he was in Washington, D.C.  “This is a sign, obviously of support for them [in their court case against the contraception waiver under the Affordable Care Act]” said Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the head of the Vatican Press Office.  “In this sense,” he added, “it is connected also to the words that the Pope has said in support of the Bishops of the United States in the speech to President Obama.”49

No one should be surprised.  In 2014, Francis slammed as “bastardized” any definitions of marriage and family that do not comport with Church teaching, including “new forms” of unions which are “totally destructive and limiting the greatness of the love of marriage.”50

Meanwhile, the notion of accommodation took a different turn in Utah in April 2015.  The state legislature passed a workplace and housing nondiscrimination law with strong religious exemptions, co-written by civil rights groups and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints or LDS (commonly known as the Mormon Church).  As PRA reported at the time, the Mormons collaborated with conservative legal theorist Robin Fretwell Wilson to help draft it.  The bill added sexual orientation to the list of protected classes against whom employers and landlords cannot discriminate – but exempted faith-based schools, hospitals and organizations from conforming to the law.51

PRA Communications Director Eric Ethington criticized the “compromise” as a “watered-down nondiscrimination law” that undermines the LGBTQ and other minority communities.  The price, he noted, was the de facto “endorsement by high-profile LGBTQ groups of the Right’s false contention that religious freedom is somehow at odds with LGBTQ rights, requiring a compromise.” 52

The Church capitalized on the situation, secretly writing a second bill that granted county clerk employees a religious exemption from processing same-sex marriage licenses, as long as there was someone else in the office available to do the job.  The Mormon Church then told lawmakers that if it didn’t also pass, the Church would withdraw its support for the so-called nondiscrimination law.  Human rights groups were caught flat-footed and reluctantly released a statement saying they “did not oppose” the second bill.

Revealing a tension between the Christian Right’s notion of religious liberty and the LDS Church’s belief that it must always conform to the law, Mormon Elder Dallin H.  Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, said that public officials “are not free to apply personal convictions – religious or other – in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices.”  Apparently referring to the Kim Davis episode, he added, “A county clerk’s recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle.”53

One way that the Christian Right is developing and promoting legal justifications and popular messaging is by publishing legal guides for individuals and institutions in order to generate popular resistance to legal and cultural safeguards against religious supremacy.  For example, there has always been (and probably always will be) a degree of tension about when and how students and staff can engage in religious expression in public schools.  But Liberty Institute is ramping up its efforts to expand reasonable accommodation, issuing a Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers.

The booklet addresses a range of issues, from religious expression in class to Christmas celebrations.  While not all of the information is incorrect, it is premised on the notion that a creeping antireligious secularism in the schools must be combated because, the Institute claims, it results in rising “crime and suicide rates…in our schools while academic scores and career readiness are falling.”54  This too, is a carefully worded retread of a long disproved meme, linking the elimination of official school prayer to crime and other negative social and economic indicators. It is a meme that, like the claim of creeping secularism and its variants, falls apart under scrutiny.55  It also conveniently ignores the high incidence of bullying and suicide among LGBTQ students.

Religious liberty struggles are also expanding in the military.  Here Christian Right groups resist the protection of the constitutional rights of all with demands for accommodation and legal exemptions for Christian expression – largely proselytizing – and religious coercion by the chain of command.

Tony Perkins and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. “Jerry” Boykin of the Family Research Council claim that: “pressures to impose a secular, anti-religious culture on our nation’s military services have intensified tremendously during the Obama Administration.”  They attribute this to targeting of the military by “anti-Christian activists.”56

In 2013, the Washington, DC-based Family Research Council (FRC) published A Clear and Present Danger:  the Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military as a prelude to launching a coalition made up of about two dozen Christian Right political and legal groups to address these issues.57  This was at once an effort to control the definition of religious freedom in the military context, and a response to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which opposes religious intimidation and coercion by people in positions of power (usually evangelical Christians) within the U.S. military. One group has alleged, for example, that MRFF is an “Anti-Christian Bigotry Group,” and that MRFF uses “lawsuits and intimidation to silence any reference to Christianity from the public square.”58

Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council published a 2nd edition of "A Clear and Present Danger" in 2015.

Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council published a 2nd edition of “A Clear and Present Danger” in 2015.

Liberty Institute screens requests from members of the armed services for legal assistance, and refers potential cases to members of the coalition’s legal team and network of attorneys.  The Institute produced a Religious Liberty Protection Kit for the U.S. Military, which emphasizes the key terms of RFRA and the recent court decisions hinging on it.  Specifically, consistent with the language of RFRA (and RLUIPA) via Hobby Lobby, it claims that the military must accommodate “sincerely held religious beliefs” and that the government may “deny… religious expression only when it can show a compelling governmental interest and uses the least restrictive option in accomplishing that interest.”59

Institutional Exemptions

The notion that businesses, schools, and other institutions have a right to the religious freedom accorded religious institutions and individual clergy is a key ground of contestation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions relying on its interpretation of RFRA.

The Court’s Hobby Lobby decision concluded that private, for-profit businesses may be exempted from the law, but the ruling did not spell out how far religious liberty claims of exemption could go, and is likely to be tested in the courts for years to come.  The Little Sisters of the Poor case involves refusing to file the paperwork to request a religious exemption from the mandate.  The federal government has made clear that the exemption would be granted, but the Becket Fund is arguing that it violates the order’s conscience even to have to request it.60

Beyond this the Christian Right is seeking to advance its agenda by expanding the definition of ministry.  Their legal groups’ key tactic is to build on the unanimous 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Briefly, in Hosanna-Tabor, a mainline Lutheran-owned school fired a social studies teacher over a disability, leading to the teacher’s claim that she suffered from discrimination.  The church argued that the government had no right to intervene in its employment decisions since the teacher served in a ministerial capacity because she was “called” by the church (unlike lay teachers in the school), led students in prayer three times a day as part of her duties and taught religion four times a week.  The Court agreed, extending the longstanding “ministerial exception” to the teacher, and saying that relationship trumped any unlawful discrimination charge.61  It thus raised Christian Right hopes that the Court will stretch the notion of ministry even more in the future.  The words of Chief Justice John Roberts who authored the decision were encouraging.  The court had opted not to “adopt a rigid formula for deciding when an employee qualifies as a minister.”  The limited time the social studies teacher spent on religious duties was sufficient, in the view of the court, to define the role of a teacher as one of ministry.

“Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision,” wrote Roberts. “By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.” 62

Christian Right leaders and advocates for the interests of religious institutions saw Hosanna-Tabor as a “great victory” and a departure from “the usual focus on the religious rights of individuals.”63  Dr. C. Peter Wagner, the evangelical founder of the theocratic New Apostolic Reformation 64 and a longtime professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, observed that: “not only churches, but ministries supported by the church are included in this ruling.  Schools are specifically mentioned, but how about a number of other kinds of ministries attached to our churches and apostolic networks? I would think they would fall under the same umbrella.” 65  Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks said he found “comfort” in the decision, against thethreat” of governmental actions that he believes “are overshadowing the free exercise of religion by making it subordinate to other newly found ‘civil rights.’” 66

The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “The case is arguably among the most important religious liberty cases in a half century, and the concurrence of Justices across the ideological spectrum will be felt for years. Hallelujah.”67  The Becket Fund called it “the greatest religious liberty case in 50 years.”68  They may not be wrong about its significance – even though many opponents of the Christian Right agree that the Court ruled correctly in the case.

The Christian Right is already exploiting the open-endedness of the Court’s definition of ministry.  The extent to which religiously affiliated institutions such as schools, charities, hospitals, and perhaps even for-profit businesses can define employees as ministers is now an active question – certain to be tested – as conservative religious movements and leaders seek to carve out zones of exemption from the advance of secular law, equality, and accountability.

The practical effects of Hosanna-Tabor are already being felt as several Roman Catholic dioceses have sought to reclassify teachers and other Catholic school employees as part of the “ministry” of the church.69  This religification was on vivid display in early 2015, when Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, following Roman Catholic prelates in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Honolulu, and Oakland, declared that teachers in the Catholic schools will be required to conform to Catholic teaching in their personal lives.  (As chair of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage of the USCCB, Cordileone is a leading culture warrior.)70  Cordileone wanted unionized employees to accept contract and faculty handbook language against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, contraceptives, and artificial insemination.  He also said that all Catholic school employees – even non-Catholics – must conform with and not contradict Church teachings.71  Cordileone’s initiative was met with resistance in San Francisco, but the future battle lines in San Francisco and beyond are clearly drawn.

As employers, religious institutions themselves are subject to labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, federal income tax, and Social Security withholdings.  But in recent years, a number of Roman Catholic colleges and universities have claimed, for example, that the National Labor Relations Board lacks jurisdiction over union organizing among their workers.72  They have thus far not succeeded, but they will surely continue testing the breadth and depth of implications of the Hosanna-Tabor decision.73

Cordileone’s attempts to religify San Francisco’s Catholic school employees were in fact part of a larger effort by the Christian Right to “religify” religious – and also nonreligious – institutions and businesses by linking them and their employees to ministerial duties.74  The tactic aims to advance and consolidate Christian Right gains at the Supreme Court, and stanch other losses.

Christian Right legal groups are issuing manuals for conservative churches and other organizations to inoculate themselves against private lawsuits and government enforcement of civil rights laws.  Under the rubric of religification, the Liberty Institute urges institutions to specify, document, and enforce their beliefs as a defensive tactic against feared legal attacks.  This includes:

…examining articles of incorporation, bylaws, employee handbooks, policies & procedures, independent contractor agreements, and other documentation to ensure that churches, ministries, and faith-based businesses are prepared and protected against legal and financial ruin from individuals and organizations who are offended by traditional religious viewpoints—and seek to litigate employment or discrimination claims to further a larger political or cultural agenda. 75

Having lost the main legal battle over marriage equality in the United States, the Christian Right is hunkering down for what they foresee as a long siege against conservative Christian churches, businesses, and organizations on this, and a range of concerns.  The Liberty Institute’s religification manuals demonstrate that Christian Right leaders of the culture war intend to fight LGBTQ rights and marriage equality in the states, in the towns and cities, and in many kinds of institutions for years to come.

Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission co-published "Protecting Your Ministry From Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits."

Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission co-published “Protecting Your Ministry From Sexual Orientation Gender Identity Lawsuits.”

In 2015, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), joined forces with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention to issue another such handbook, urging religification by revising documents – from employee job descriptions to facility rental agreements – for churches and related institutions. Workers and volunteers should be reclassified under a broad redefinition of “ministry,” and institutional functions should be cast in terms of religious doctrine.  The goal is to qualify for broad “ministerial exemptions” from the law.76

The ADF and ERLC handbook, Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits:  A Legal Guide for Southern Baptist and Evangelical Churches, Schools, and Ministries, anticipates needing to “engage a hostile social and political culture… amid the gathering spiritual darkness.”  Consistent with the dualistic framing that pits LGBTQ rights against religious freedom, the ERLC claims, “A new concept – that “sexual liberty” trumps religious freedom – has begun to impact churches, ministries, and Christians across this nation.”77

The Liberty Institute sees it as “not a matter of if but when religious institutions will be faced with damaging, anti-religious legal attacks.”78  [Emphasis in the original.]  To prepare, the Institute advises institutions from churches and synagogues to fraternities and for-profit corporations to “religify.”79

The Institute has also issued Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Christian Schools, which, like their manual for churches, “provides templates and guides for writing legally defensible statements of faith, mission, purpose, school bylaws and constitutions, and more.”80  The Institute plans to issue similar manuals for nonprofit organizations, businesses, and even fraternities and sororities.81

The Southern Baptist manual suggests assigning “… employees duties that involve ministerial, teaching, or other spiritual qualifications – duties that directly further the religious mission.  For example, if a church receptionist answers the phone, the job description might detail how the receptionist is required to answer basic questions about the church’s faith, provide religious resources, or pray with callers.”82

While the courts may not buy the idea that a receptionist can be reasonably construed as a minister in the legal sense, this is the kind of thinking that is permeating the conservative Christian world in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor.

This religification project has immediate implications on matters of sexual identity. The Liberty Institute’s template titled “Statement of Faith:  Marriage and Human Sexuality” advances a strident, exclusivist, and detailed doctrine identifying permanent, heterosexual marriage or celibacy as the only acceptable parameters of human sexuality, stating,

All of our members, employees, and volunteers must affirm and adhere to this Doctrinal and Religious Absolute statement on marriage and human sexuality to qualify for involvement with the ministry.  This is necessary to accomplish our religious mission, goals and purpose.83

The Institute’s Facility Use Policy agreement would require outside groups and individuals to conform to a given church’s views on faith, marriage, sexuality, and gender identity.  This is intended to help these institutions avoid “legal and financial ruin” due to the activities of “individuals and organizations that are offended by traditional religious viewpoints and seek to litigate employment or discrimination claims to further a larger political or cultural agenda.84  The goal, they say is to be able to “prove the sincerity of their faith – and protect themselves from coming legal attacks.”85

"Religious Liberty Protection Kits" published by the Liberty Institute.

“Religious Liberty Protection Kits” published by the Liberty Institute.

The Baptists claim that a reason for such measures is that malevolent intentions lurk behind the passage of local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances.  These laws “are not designed for the innocent purpose of ensuring all people receive basic services,” they claim.  “Rather, their practical effect is to legally compel Christians to accept, endorse, and even promote messages, ideas, and events that violate their faith.”  The manual avers that religification cannot inoculate institutions from “all attacks by marriage counterfeits and those advocating for complete sexual license.”  But it concludes that these measures might place an organization in a “more defensible legal position should it face a lawsuit for discrimination.”86

This is also the goal of conservative Christian colleges that receive federal funds seeking exemption from Obama administration guidelines regarding matters of sex and gender identity, homosexuality, and marital status.  Like other religifying institutions, the schools are seeking to put themselves in the most legally defensible position they can if they are sued for discrimination.

These requests follow a religification-style template produced by the Springfield, VA-based Christian Legal Society, an early Christian Right legal project founded in 1961 that has specialized in education cases and wider religious freedom matters since 1980.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights granted waivers to 27 religious colleges and universities in 17 states in 2014 and 2015.  Most of these are conservative evangelical schools.  Some are Roman Catholic.  More applications are reportedly pending.  The waiver granted to the Southern Baptist-affiliated Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee, includes women who have had an abortion or who may be pregnant.87

When the U.S. Congress passed Title IX in 1972 to combat discrimination based on sex in education, Congress stipulated that a school that is “controlled by a religious organization” may be exempt if compliance “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Such requests were rare until 2014 when the Obama administration issued guidance that the Title IX discrimination prohibition extends to transgender and gender nonconforming people. 88

Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine Catholic school near Charlotte, NC wrote regarding their policies on gender, sexual identity, and marital status, “We will make institutional decisions in light of this policy regarding housing, student admission and retention, appropriate conduct, employment, hiring and retention, and other matters.”89

Biola University (founded as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles) requires its faculty to sign a statement of creedal conformity; and requires non-faculty employees to state in what ways they are in disagreement and their reasons why.  Their views on abortion and on traditional marriage are deemed non-negotiable and “require the full agreement and support of all employees.” 90

All of these religification measures aim to allow institutional leaders to at once justify and compel their institutions, staff, and students into deeper conformity with contemporary religious orthodoxies, including those at odds with the civil and Constitutional rights of others.

Exceptional Exemptions in Indiana (click to expand)

Indiana is a hotbed of conflict over the politics of exemptions as this report goes to press. At stake are both a state version of RFRA and whether the statehouse can preempt and limit local LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances.

In 2015, after public outcry, Indiana’s legislature amended a state RFRA it had just passed, specifying that the new law was not intended to legalize discrimination.  The law had allowed for third parties, specifically businesses, to claim a right to discriminate if their owners had sincerely held religious beliefs against same-sex marriage.  The so-called RFRA fix131 also clarified that it would not supersede local antidiscrimination ordinances.

But the story does not end there.  Two Christian Right groups, the Indiana Family Institute and the American Family Association of Indiana, filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the amendment to the state RFRA is unconstitutional.  They claim that specifying that RFRA does not afford anyone room to discriminate not only violates their religious liberty, but also their freedom of conscience, right to free speech and association, equal protection under the law, and right to due process.

The lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of the city ordinances passed by Indianapolis a decade ago and Carmel in 2015, which banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The suit contends that protecting the rights of LGBTQ people in nondiscrimination laws violates the religious freedom of those who oppose homosexuality, as does the RFRA “fix.”  “The ‘fix’ makes people of faith second-class citizens,” according to Indiana Family Institute president Curt Smith.  The Institute’s attorney, James Bopp Jr., further claims that the government is protecting LGBTQ-friendly religions while other religions will “suffer government punishment if they don’t fall in line” and that “this discrimination between religious views is unconstitutional.” 132

Many leaders of the Christian Right do not in fact believe in civic equality for those with whom they religiously disagree or otherwise do not approve.  Indeed, the suit claims that by barring individuals and businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public accommodations, local antidiscrimination ordinances in Indiana compel conservative Christians “to associate with activities and social, political, and ideological messages with which they disagree, which are substantial burdens on free association.”

This pitting of the religious rights of some against the civic equality of others is at the heart of many contemporary disputes about the meaning of religious freedom.

In the second conflict, a bill before the Indiana state legislature would ban local jurisdictions (cities, towns, and counties) from enacting their own laws governing everything from land use to minimum wage and other workplace issues, as well as LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances. Such measures are part of a significant trend.  Nearly all states, PRA’s Mariya Strauss reports, “have already done away with cities’ and towns’ ability to pass local gun control laws; not quite as many states have blocked local control of tobacco, e-cigarettes, and environmental regulations.”133

Borrowing from anti-LGBTQ policies established in Arkansas earlier this year and Tennessee in 2011, the proposed legislation in Indiana would prohibit local ordinances that would be “more stringent or otherwise in conflict” with the bill.134  The bill also borrows from the controversial “First Amendment Defense Act,” introduced but not passed by Congress (see page 23 of this report).  The bill would provide broad religious exemptions for individuals and organizations to discriminate, including adoption agencies, nonprofit schools, and religiously affiliated organizations “that provides social services or charitable services.”135

That such obvious discrimination is being so blatantly cloaked in a broad religious freedom claim is extraordinary.  Yet Indiana Republicans claim the coarse bigotry in “Senate Bill 100 is a good-faith attempt to balance religious liberty and the civil rights of LGBT Hoosiers.”136

Territorial Exemptions Involving Zoning and Land Use

Religious institutions invoke religious liberty to give them the upper hand in local zoning and land use issues using the Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) signed by President Clinton in 2000.91  The law gives religious institutions access to the federal courts to make religious liberty claims in local zoning cases, and makes localities liable for damages and attorney’s fees.  Professor Hamilton of Benjamin Cardozo School of Law argues that religious visions for property can lead to a sense of entitlement that transcends respect for, and fair treatment of the rights and interests of, others.92  Similar situations exist when churches seek to add childcare centers, homeless shelters, and other facilities deemed incompatible with residential land use regulations.

In RLUIPA you can see the main elements of the Christian Right’s approach to religious liberty and the expansive notions of religious exemptions that flow from it.  It creates a presumption of antireligionism on the part of people who oppose a particular project.  Resistance by residential neighborhoods to the addition or expansion of large modern religious institutions is, of course, not necessarily a matter of being anti-Christian, anti-Jewish or antireligious in any sense of the word.  And yet, the charge that religious bigotry is involved is given great credence under RLUIPA. 93

The law’s biggest boosters are Christian Right ideologues like Anthony Picarello.  A litigator for the Becket Fund for seven years, he is now the General Counsel for and Associate General Secretary for Policy and Advocacy of the Roman Catholic USCCB.94 “RLUIPA does not create ‘two classes of citizens’ across religious lines.”  Instead, he claims, “it creates two classes of activities – land use that involves religious exercise, and land use that does not – and then reinforces the constitutional protection for all citizens who choose to use their land for religious exercise.”  Hamilton observes in response, “In other words, religious land is more valuable than anyone else’s.  Note also his sly use of the phrase ‘constitutional protection,’ as though RLUIPA is constitutionally required.  It is not.”95

The presumption of the superiority of religious uses of land over all others, and that opposition is rooted in hyper-secular or even antireligious animus, is in line with the underlying views of the signers of the Manhattan Declaration.


A key battleground is whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows federal contractors and grantees to discriminate in their hiring.  A legal analysis by the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice justified such a reading of the law.  This reading – what is referred to in D.C.-shorthand as “the OLC Memo”– continues to stand under President Obama despite the efforts of civil rights advocates.

Religious agencies use the OLC Memo to justify discriminating in favor of members of their own faith, even if the grant program in question requires recipients not to do so.  The Memo’s influence extends deeply into federal programs including the 2014 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  Certain religiously affiliated organizations that receive federal funds under VAWA use religion as a criterion when hiring employees using taxpayer dollars, despite the law’s clear nondiscrimination requirement.

Following years of unsuccessful efforts to get the Obama administration to rescind the Memo, 130 civil rights, labor, and liberal organizations wrote to President Obama in August 2015 urging him to reconsider it.96  As Americans United for Separation of Church and State (a leader in the effort) put it, the OLC Memo provides a legal rationale for “taxpayer-funded religious discrimination.”97

The August 2015 letter states that “some have cited the OLC Memo in arguing that RFRA should broadly exempt religiously affiliated contractors from the nondiscrimination requirements” in an executive order barring government contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ workers.  Others claim the Memo allows them to refuse to provide services or referrals required under federal funding agreements covering medical care for unaccompanied immigrant children who are victims of sexual abuse.

Despite saying the right things about religious and gender equality – and as a candidate vowing to repeal the Memo –President Obama is dragging his feet on the matter.  The administration’s official inaction has allowed millions of dollars to be channeled to groups that engage in religious and antigay discrimination via the “faith-based” offices in 13 federal agencies and departments.  The administration is secretive about the budgets, grantees and their activities, as journalists and advocacy groups learn when they try to get information.98

This trend of awarding ever greater special status to “faith-based” organizations runs deep in elements of both the Democratic and Republican parties.99  What is more, this is among a number of faith-based points of discrimination that the Obama administration allows to stand; discredited HIV and abstinence-only pregnancy prevention programs still receive money, as journalist Andy Kopsa reported in The Nation in 2014.100

Meanwhile conservatives in Congress are not only relying on the OLC Memo to support discrimination.  They responded to the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage with an ill-fated piece of legislation called the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). 101  The Act would make it legal for businesses and public officials to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ people.  Christian Right groups also want state legislatures to approve similar measures that stop the government from discriminating against those who do not believe in marriage equality.  The Conservative Action Project, a strategy group headed by Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, invoked the alleged threat to religious liberty to rally movement conservatives around the bill declaring, “No individual should lose their tax exempt status, face disqualification, be fined, or lose grants or contracts for following their beliefs.”102  In fact, such legislation has been introduced in Indiana.  (See box)

Writing in support of FADA, the USCCB made an astounding claim that casts a fresh light on the Church’s intentions to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination even without relying on claims of religious conscientious objection.  The bishops explained in supporting the bill that the “[a]ct would protect a wide array of persons, including individuals and organizations – both for-profits and nonprofits – regardless of whether or not they are religiously affiliated.  Thus, business owners as well as faith communities would be protected.”

The USCCB argues that the legislation is needed to prevent the federal government from joining in an alleged growing intolerance of and discrimination by state governments “toward religiously-minded individuals and organizations who want to live by their conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”103  In other words, the Roman Catholic bishops want business owners to be able to discriminate against same-sex married couples even without the fig leaf of religious conscientious objection.

The proposal’s implications go well beyond issues of discrimination.  Walter Olsen of the libertarian Cato Institute observed that the proposed legislation would “even exempt federal workers who don’t want to process benefits and rights claims made by married same-sex couples.  There are at least 1,100 such benefits under federal law.”  Olsen considers the bill to be one directional, protecting proponents of “traditional values” while denying equal protection to proponents of marriage equality or sex outside of one-man-one-woman marriage.104


An animating notion across the widest spectrum of the Religious Right is the idea that Christianity, and often religion itself, is under siege and that everyone from teachers, to LGBTQ activists, to reproductive health providers, and certainly atheists and advocates of “big government” are part of a continuum of an existential threat.  One cannot understate the seriousness with which many on the Christian Right take this ancient and powerful idea, nor how it animates our contemporary politics.

Other Christian leaders and the organizations they lead are working to expose this dualistic narrative that this is a fight between the religious and the antireligious.  The United Church of Christ (UCC) took this on in North Carolina, when it successfully challenged the anti-marriage equality amendment to the state constitution on grounds that it criminalized ceremonies which they and other religious communities considered to be valid and sacred.  This was a religious freedom claim against a state law that privileged one group of religious views of marriage over others.

The North Carolina case underscores that religious freedom is only possible in the context of religious pluralism.  It also reveals that when Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty, they often really mean theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs institutionalized in government.  Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, suggested that the UCC is not really Christian, and that those who support LGBTQ rights don’t have the same rights as conservative Christians – because “true religious freedom” only applies to “orthodox religious viewpoints.”105   UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer responded, “There is no liberty intended” if it is “only for those who believe as we do.”  He is confident that “our commitment to religious liberty” can withstand contemporary attacks by the Christian Right.106

Still, in light of the growing support for the civil rights of LGBTQ people, Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee (among others) has repeatedly claimed that the United States is moving toward “criminalization of Christianity.”107  As preposterous as such claims may sound to many Americans, they resonate deeply with those who are grounded in the idea that Christianity is incompatible with marriage equality, reproductive rights, LGBTQ civil rights, and broad social inclusion.

Throughout American history, “established power brokers” have stirred up sexual fears when they feel their position is threatened, explain Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, and Christian writer Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.  “The widespread acceptance of interracial relationships makes ‘mongrelization’ a moot point in 21st-century America.  But we who know this history can see that public expressions of concern about the ‘gay lifestyle’ are not about religious freedom.  They are about dividing an increasingly diverse electorate that has twice elected a black president.”

Referring to state level RFRAs, they added, “As Southern preachers engaged in moral-fusion organizing, we say to our fellow ministers:  ‘religious freedom’ laws are an immoral ploy to stir up old fears. As people of faith, we must oppose them.” 108

The academic Marci Hamilton also turns to history to challenge the Christian Right’s dualistic notion that it is engaged in a battle between religiosity and its enemies.  “Many of the early American colonists departed Britain to escape the theological mandates imposed on them by the European theocracies that blended sovereign and religious power,” she reminds us.  “In this pluralist society, the pressure by a subset of Christians to push for a single moral vision… cannot be characterized other than as a drive to institute a theocracy in their own image.”109

The narrative is powerful, but it cannot stand up to the facts of history, or to existing political and social reality.  Acknowledgement of the very existence of religious support for reproductive rights and marriage equality blows up this notion.  Yet even civil rights activists sometimes unwittingly fall into the narrative.

The values of religious freedom, pluralism and separation of church and state are essential guiding principles that can keep our religiously plural society from factionalizing to the point of religious warfare.  Without them, the country risks splintering into what Hamilton calls “a collection of separate mini-theocracies” carved out in law. 110

How contemporary religious rights and civil equality of religious minorities and dominant factions are respected and managed in a religiously plural society is something that the Revolutionary leaders could not have imagined.  We need to wrestle with our lineage in the current moment.  Our future on these matters is in our own hands.

The question in our time then becomes, what beliefs shall be accommodated, and if so, to what degree and by what standard?  And perhaps most significant, who gets to decide?


The contemporary Christian Right has been developing and fine-tuning its approach to religious freedom for decades.111  For the Christian Right, it is part of an integrated agenda of religious and political philosophies and issues, accompanied by steady strategic capacity building.  The historic reframing of religious freedom as one of three main concerns outlined by Christian Right leaders in the 2009 Manhattan Declaration is underappreciated outside of the conservative Christian community.  By the same token, the full implications of the major decisions of the Supreme Court outlined in this report will be felt for at least as many decades as it took for the Christian Right to develop a religious freedom agenda (and the coalitional, electoral, and legislative capacity to carry it out).

These conflicts are integral to the story of our time.  We owe it to ourselves, our shared concerns, and to the preservation of the best of our history, culture and shared values to rise to these distinct and in many ways unprecedented challenges.

The Christian Right aims to profoundly reorganize our relationship to law, religion, government, and to each other.  The rights of women, workers, and racial, religious, and sexual minorities, are all deeply threatened.  More broadly, the ability of government to ensure equal protection under the law is under assault.  To meet this threat will require more than a broadening of tactical coordination among racial equality, feminist, LGBTQ, labor, civil libertarian, progressive religious, and other constituencies.  We face a decades-long struggle that will require our own long game, comprising durable strategies, alliances, and campaigns that include and transcend any specific legal, legislative, communications, or culture change approach.

Religious Freedom Day (click to expand)

Every year since 1992, Religious Freedom Day has been recognized on January 16 with a presidential proclamation.  The day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.  This law is so integral to our history that Thomas Jefferson viewed his role in creating it as one of the three signature accomplishments of his life — along with writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia.

Here is why Jefferson thought it was that important.

Jefferson drafted the bill in 1777 but it took nearly a decade to be shepherded into law by James Madison, then a member of the House of Delegates.  The law not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the state church of Virginia, but also declared that citizens are free to believe as they will, and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”137  Historians widely regard it as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government.  It was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written.

religious freedom day tweetFollowing the statute’s dramatic passage in 1786, Madison traveled to Philadelphia where he served as a principal author of the Constitution in 1787.  As a member of Congress in 1789, he was also a lead author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.  But the new nation was hardly unified on the matter of religious freedom.  Some did not like the Virginia Statute any more than they liked the Constitution and its First Amendment.  So before his death, Jefferson sought to get the last word on what it meant.

The Statute, he wrote, contained “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”  These words ring down through time in the face of contemporary demagogues calling for religious tests on refugees and international travelers. Jefferson and the leaders of the founding era not only knew Muslims but that religious freedom only meant something if Muslims had equal protection under the law.138

So with this clear and powerful statement Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refutes contemporary claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Jefferson further explained that the legislature had rejected proposed language that would have described “Jesus Christ” as “the holy author of our religion.”  This was rejected, he reported, “by the great majority.”

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom does not fit the Christian Right’s narrative of history or justify its shining vision of a theocratic future.  But they actively seek to minimize this problem.  For example, topping the list from a Google search for Religious Freedom Day is, run by a small outfit called Gateways to Better Education.  It treats the Day as an opportunity to evangelize in the public schools. “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day,’” they insist.139

By contrast, in his 2015 proclamation, President Obama declared that religious freedom “protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear.”t140

That’s why it was so significant that in 2015, the Washington DC-based Coalition for Liberty and Justice — composed of 60 organizations opposed to the imposition of “one religious viewpoint on all” — decided to seize the day.141  The Coalition, whose members include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Catholics for Choice, National Council of Jewish Women, National LGBTQ Task Force, Secular Coalition for America, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, took to the op-ed pages and social media and launched a conversation that continues.

Case Study: Workers Win Victory for Religious Freedom Against Church-Run Health and Hospital Company (click to expand)

In a major setback for Christian Right efforts to evade the law in the name of religious freedom, a federal appeals court held in December 2015 that a Catholic hospital pension plan was not eligible for a religious exemption from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) protecting individuals in most private pensions by setting minimum standards. In Kaplan v. St. Peter’s Healthcare System, the federal Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, determined that the hospital did not qualify as a church, and thus is not entitled to the religious exemption under the law.

The St. Peter’s Healthcare System of New Brunswick, NJ, had established its own employee retirement plan, which it underfunded to the tune of $30 million, claiming a church exemption to many of the provisions of ERISA, such as mandatory fiduciary and funding requirements. Pensioner Laurence Kaplan was concerned that the plan was underfunded142 and his lawsuit showed that indeed it was.

St. Peter’s is a nonprofit healthcare system employing over 2,800 people. For more than 30 years it operated the plan according to ERISA standards. But in 2006, St. Peter’s stopped fully funding the plan, seeking – and eventually receiving – a determination from the IRS that it was eligible for the church exemption under ERISA. But the federal courts disagree. St. Peter’s must now comply with ERISA’s protections including full funding of the plan.

Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, called the decision “a terrific victory for thousands of orderlies, cafeteria workers, nurses, and others who were told throughout their careers at Saint Peter’s that they were fully protected by federal law.” 143 James Sonne of the Stanford Religious Liberty Clinic submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on the side of St. Peter’s. The Southern Baptist Convention also weighed in with an amicus brief for St. Peter’s.144

The Court noted the case is likely to be influential in a “new wave of litigation” challenging the exempt status of pension plans established by religiously affiliated hospitals claiming that their pension plans are “church plans.” 145

Here are recommendations for how we might better seize the opportunity to defend religious freedom in our time.

The Development of Ideas, Message, and Strategy 

1 – Envision and resource a long-term strategy. The struggle cannot (and is not) only being waged in the courts.  We must to develop, refine, and propagate our long game by:

  • Resourcing a network of strategists, scholars, and think tanks over the long term. This is vital for educating and empowering a wide range of constituencies and building coalitions.  We need a clear and compelling analysis that contextualizes the stakes for constituencies not currently at the forefront of efforts to challenge the Right’s legal and legislative initiatives, for example the historical use of religious exemptions to justify racial segregation in schools.
  • Strengthening the alliance between prochoice and pro-LGBTQ forces, as well as labor, religious, traditional civil rights, and other affected communities.
  • Refreshing historic alliances with liberal business owners, libertarians, and moderate Republicans.

These efforts should actively identify best practices where coalitions were successful and learn from where they were not.

2 – Reclaim religious freedom as a fundamental democratic value. This means embracing religious freedom as emphasizing the equality of all people including everyone’s right to believe and to practice faith (or not) as we will, and to change our minds – free from undue influence of powerful religious institutions and government.  Religious freedom also means the freedom to act on our beliefs as long as those actions do not harm or infringe on the rights of others.  The notion of third party “harms” is a critical part of the discussion that needs to happen regarding the meaning of religious freedom in our time.  All this is in keeping with the historic trajectory of the law in the United States, as well as international human rights conventions.  We can develop a powerful religious freedom narrative that can answer and overcome many of the Right’s claims.

3 – Avoid reinforcing the dualistic narrative that pits civil rights concerns against religion. Routinely framing public controversies as religious vs. secular plays into a false narrative.  Similarly, pitting LGBTQ rights or reproductive rights against religious freedom also plays powerfully into the false narrative.  There are no perfect solutions.  But we can embrace religious pluralism as a value underlying the vision of the Framers of the Constitution, modern Supreme Court decisions, and federal case law.  Religious pluralism in this sense incorporates the equal rights of nonbelievers as well.

4 – Actively collaborate with and elevate religious communities. Religious leaders are already playing key roles in the struggle for religious freedom, including those who have thwarted the passage of RFRAs in Georgia and in North Carolina. We should

  • Consult, support, and promote these religious leaders to social justice constituencies and to the news media.
  • Catalyze the creation of a common “Call to Conscience” of religious and nonreligious people to rally defenders of religious pluralism, separation of church and state, and the religious freedom heritage of the framers of the Constitution.

5 – Create high-profile religious freedom events to offer a clear and consistent positive alternative to the Christian Right’s redefinition of religious liberty. A key element in this approach could be to expand celebrations of Religious Freedom Day on every January 16th. (See box.)112 This day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and sponsored in the legislature by James Madison.  Historians recognize the statute as the direct precedent to the approach to religion and government by Framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment to the Constitution.113 This lineage provides a moral and historical high ground that we must not cede to the religious and political Right.114

6 – Counter misinformation. Many conservative religious liberty claims rely on falsehoods, bogus history, and scare tactics. For example, in all of U.S. history, no clergy were forced under the law to perform any marriage of which they did not approve. This has not changed since the advent of marriage equality in Massachusetts in 2003. Social justice advocates must learn and be able to counter the Right’s go-to examples of spurious religious liberty violations while supporting religious freedom itself.

7 – Take seriously the influence of rightwing academics on policy and public debate. This means giving greater prominence and support to the fair-minded scholars who address this issue. Religious freedom is a complex topic which cannot be adequately addressed by short-term, message-oriented efforts of liberal interest groups.

8 – Question and challenge those denying and downplaying the ongoing political strength of the Christian Right. While we celebrate movement victories and project a positive vision for the future, at the same time, social justice thought and strategy is held back by making wrong assumptions about the strength and resilience of the Christian Right.  Phrases like “the Christian Right is dead” (or dying) and “the culture wars are over” (or declining) are indicators of ignorance and wishful thinking, at best.115

9 – Consider international human rights standards regarding religious freedom and the rights of conscience. They are very strong and are consistent with a domestic agenda, and are part of the growing international dimension to this struggle.  It is important not to allow the international Christian Right to appropriate the idea of religious freedom as it has sought to do in the United States.

The Political Arena

10 – Urge candidates and elected officials to end legal justifications for all forms of discrimination under the rubric of religious freedom.

11 – Organize public discussion of how to best defend religious freedom in the legal arena and all levels of government. This is not always clear.  For example, Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law has called for repeal of RFRA, RLUIPA, and state RFRAs.  The Center for American Progress has called for reforming RFRA, particularly by eliminating the “harms” to third parties.116 Still others think RFRA is benign and offers protections that would not be otherwise available, and that RFRA and LGBTQ civil rights are compatible.  This is a public discussion worth having.

12 – Continue to urge the Obama administration to end discrimination by faith-based contractors by reversing the OLC Memo before President Obama leaves office.

13 – Develop a progressive electoral answer to the Right. The Right has been remarkably successful in developing an electoral capacity and strategy to gain control of the institutions of government, using the tools of democracy in order to undermine it.  The campaign to redefine religious liberty is but one theme; its successes in this arena result from the Right’s political power. Envisioning a broader and more robust response required for our time and circumstances is beyond the scope of this report.  But it needs to happen.  Repeating the pattern of ignoring the decades-long development of the Christian Right’s vast electoral capacity and trajectory of success through the Republican Party is a formula for failure.

About the Author

Frederick Clarkson is Senior Fellow of Political Research Associates and an analyst of the Religious Right for over 30 years. He is a longtime contributor to PRA’s quarterly Public Eye and a member of its editorial board. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including Mother Jones, Church & State, Ms. Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and Religion Dispatches. He has worked as an investigative editor at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, as Communications Director at the Institute for Democracy Studies, and cofounded the important group blog about the Christian Right, Talk to Action. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of several books, including Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America and Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.


[*] Jay Michaelson, Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, March 2013).

[1]  See for example, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution:  A Moral Defense of the Secular State (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005) p. 106. “By 1819 he [James Madison] said that at the founding, people had been overly fearful that ‘the civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment’… The American experience had proved that rejecting the Christian commonwealth and effecting ‘a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters’ could work. In 1832, at the age of 81, Madison conceded that it might not be easy to keep clear the line between religious and civil authority … All the more reason, then he advised, future generations, to take the strictest reading of the separation of church and state…”

[2]  Jay Michaelson, Redefining Religious Liberty:  The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, March 2013). .

[3] With notable exceptions. See Marci A. Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty, rev. 2nd ed, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 266; and Carolyn J. Davis, Laura E. Durso, and Carmel Martin with Donna Barry, Billy Corriher, Sharita Gruberg, Jeff Krehely, Sarah McBride, Ian Millhiser, and Anisha Singh, Restoring the Balance: A Progressive Vision of Religious Liberty Preserves the Rights and Freedoms of All Americans, (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress: October 2015), p. 7. .

[4]  Will Weissert, “6 Republican 2016 hopefuls woo faithful at Texas megachurch,” Associated Press, October 18, 2015. .

[5]  Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2007); see book excerpt, .

[6]  Supreme Court of the United States, 1983, Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574.

[7]  Supreme Court of the United States, 2014, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, No. 13–35, p. 52 .

[8]  Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997), passim.

[9]  Matthew Yglesias, “Democrats are in denial. Their party is actually in deep trouble,” Vox Policy & Politics, October 19, 2015. .

[10]  Ralph Z.Hallow, “500 pastors heed call to run for office, restore Christian values in U.S.,” The Washington Times, November 12, 2015. .

[11] Michelle Conlin, “For God and country: more U.S. pastors seek political office in 2016,” Reuters, December 11, 2015. . For more on Lane, see Frederick Clarkson, “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,” The Public Eye, Summer 2014. .

[12]  For more on the Wilks family, see Michelle Conlin, “Special Report: Touting morality, billionaire Texas brothers top 2016 donor list,” Reuters, September 11, 2015. .

[13]  Zachary Mider, “PAC Built by Ted Cruz Mega-Donors Gets Evangelical Leader: David Barton will lead a political conglomerate that has already raised at least $38 million,” Bloomberg, September 9, 2015. .

[14]  See for example, Chris Cillizza, “Republicans have gained more than 900 state legislative seats since 2010,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2015, ; Olga Pierce, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer, ​“How Dark Money Helped Republicans Hold the House and Hurt Voters,” ProPublica, December 21, 2012, ; Bill Berkowitz, “The Secret of How the GOP Has a Lock on the House for the Foreseeable Future: Tens of millions poured into a stealth redistricting project before the 2012 elections kept dozens of GOP Districts safe from Democratic challengers,” AlterNet, December 29, 2012. .

[15]  Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, November 20, 2009, ; also see Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” The Public Eye, Summer 2013. .

[16]  Manhattan Declaration, pp. 7-8.

[17]  Albert Mohler, “Why I Signed The Manhattan Declaration,”, November 23, 2009. .

[18]  Manhattan Declaration; Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.”

[19]  Frederick Clarkson, “Will Our Prisons Overflow with Christians?” Political Research Associates, March 1, 2015, ; Frederick Clarkson, “Previewing the next anti-marriage equality manifesto,” LGBTQ Nation, February 15, 2015. .

[20]  Frederick Clarkson, “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,” The Public Eye, Summer 2014. .

[21]  Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” The Public Eye, Fall 2013. .

[22]  Mat Staver, “On Marriage, We Will Not Render to Caesar What Is God’s,” Christian Post, April 20, 2015. .

[23]  Drew DeSilver, “What is a ‘closely held corporation,’ anyway, and how many are there?” Pew Research Center, July 7, 2014. .

[24]  For a helpful overview of the implications of the Hobby Lobby case, see Carolyn J. Davis, et al., Restoring the Balance.

[25] Jen Gunter, “The Medical Facts About Birth Control and Hobby Lobby—From an OB/GYN,” The New Republic, July 6, 2014. .

[26]  Physicians for Reproductive Health, “Amicus brief, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.,” Physicians for Reproductive Health January 28, 2014. .

[27] Patricia Miller, “How the Catholic Church masterminded the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby debacle: While evangelical Christians ultimately brought down the contraception mandate, they had big help from Catholics,”, September 14, 2014. ;  See also Patrica Miller, Good Catholics:  The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014); The National Women’s Law Center, “The Hobby Lobby ‘Minefield’: The Harm, Misuse, and Expansion of the Supreme Court Decision,” The National Women’s Law Center, June 12, 2015. .

[28] Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, p. 266.

[29]  “Holt v. Hobbs,” SCOTUSblog, January 20, 2015, ; “Holt v Hobbs,” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty website, 2015. .

[30] It now means any exercise of religion, “whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief,” which is to be “construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution.” Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel;  Davis,, Restoring the Balance, p. 7.

[31]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, pages 264-277.

[32]  Supreme Court of the United States, 2014, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

[33]  Katherine Franke, et al., “Letter to Representative Ed DeLaney (Indiana House of Representatives),” February 27, 2015, fn24. .

[34]  Frederick Clarkson, “Not All the Same: Christian Right’s Hobby Lobbyization of State RFRAs,” Political Research Associates, April 20, 2015. .

[35]  Jonathan Oosting, “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signs controversial religious objection adoption bills,” Lansing News, June 11, 2015. .

[36]  Patricia Wen, “Catholic Charities Stuns State, Ends Adoptions,” The Boston Globe, March 11, 2006. .

[37]  Such legislative work-arounds are detailed on the web site RFRA Perils

[38]  General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Reisinger, 760 F.3d 352 (4th Cir. 2014). .

[39]  Michael Paulson, “North Carolina’s Gay-Marriage Ban Is Challenged by Church,” The New York Times, April 28, 2014. ; See also a background story on the struggle of North Carolina Christians to be able to marry in their church: Jack Jenkins, “The Unlikely Story Of How Religion Helped Bring Same-Sex Marriage To North Carolina,” Think Progress, November 18, 2014. .

[40]  Kay Diane Ansley, Catherine “Cathy” McGaughey, Carol Ann Person, Thomas Roger Person, Kelley Penn, and Sonja Goodman, Plaintiffs, v. State of North Carolina,  Case 1:15-cv-00274 Document 1 Filed December 9, 2015;  See Michael Gordon, “Charlotte attorneys challenge law that allows magistrates to avoid performing same-sex marriages,” The Charlotte Observer, December 9, 2015. .

[41]  Tom Foreman Jr. and Gary D. Robertson, “Lawsuit Challenges Gay Marriage Law in North Carolina,” Associated Press, December 9, 2015. .

[42]  Jay Reeves, “Alabama judges use segregation-era law to avoid gay marriage,” Associated Press, October 3, 2015. .

[43]  John Rustin with the North Carolina Family Policy Council, “Protecting Religious Freedom for Elected Officials,” CitizenLink Report video, September 22, 2015. .

[44]  Ann Carroll, “Gays Can’t Force Christian Clerks to Issue Same-Sex Licenses,” Charisma News, November 11, 2012. .

[45]  David O’Reilly, “Pope’s speech, heavy on religious liberty, echoes Chaput,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 2015., ; Pope Francis, “Speech at Independence Mall,” Pope Francis Visit 2015, September 26, 2015. .

[46]  ABC News, “EXCLUSIVE: Kim Davis Recounts Secret Meeting With Pope Francis,” ABC News video, September 30, 2015, ; Robert Moynihan, “Letter #38, 2015: Kim and Francis,” Inside the Vatican, September 29, 2015,; see also, Mat Staver, “Pope’s Words and Meetings Support Conscientious Objection,” Liberty Counsel, October 2, 2015. .

[47]  Laurie Goodstein and Jim Yardley, “Pope Francis, the Kentucky Clerk and Culture Wars Revisited,” The New York Times, September 30, 2015. .

[48]  Joshua J. McElwee, “What we don’t know about Francis’ Kim Davis meeting,” National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2015, ; Goodstein and Yardley, “Pope Francis”; Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “Controversy Swirls Over Pope’s Meeting with Kim Davis During D.C. Visit,” Church & State, November 2015, p. 15. .

[49]  “Pope Francis visits Little Sisters of the Poor.” Narrated by Devin Watkin. Vatican Radio, September 24, 2015, ; Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Abby Ohlheiser, “Pope Francis meets with Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns involved in an Obamacare lawsuit,” The Washington Post, September 23, 2015.

[50]  Elise Harris, “What is being proposed is not marriage’ – Pope calls for defense of family,” Catholic News Agency, October 26, 2014. .

[51] Eric Ethington, “The Religious Right Operative Who Helped Write Utah’s Nondiscrimination Law,” Political Research Associates, March 19, 2015. .

[52]  Eric Ethington, “Growing Mormon-Catholic Alliance: Quiet Partners Behind Christian Right’s Religious Discrimination Agenda,” Political Research Associates, April 27, 2015. .

[53]  Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormon apostle: Kim Davis was wrong not to issue same-sex marriage licenses,” The Salt Lake Tribune via Religion News Service, October 21, 2015. .

[54]  Liberty Institute, Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers: How You Can Exercise Your Legal Rights in Public School (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, 2015).

[55]  Frederick Clarkson, “The New Secular Fundamentalist Conspiracy!” The Public Eye, Spring 2008, .

[56]  Tony Perkins and Lt. Gen. (Ret.) William G. “Jerry” Boykin, A Clear and Present Danger:  The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military (Washington DC: Family Research Council, 2013, updated June 2015), ; Chris Rodda, “Rep. Fleming: NDAA Religious Freedom Language Not a ‘Touchdown’ – New Talking Points Needed,” Huffington Post, December 17, 2013, . In fact, MRFF responds to complaints by service members, both religious and nonreligious but overwhelmingly Christian, about misuses of military resources to promote certain religious groups and views over others and misuses of the chain of command to compel participation in religious events. This is cast by the Christian Right as anti-Christian and antireligious, when in fact MRFF seeks to protect the religious freedom of all, and not just religious conservatives.

[57]  Perkins and Boykin, A Clear and Present Danger; Chris Rodda, “Pentagon Assures Anti-Religious-Freedom Coalition That Rumor They Started Isn’t True!” Huffington Post, September 23, 2013, ; Liberty Counsel, “Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition Offers Legal Aid to Bible Verse Cadets, Calls Out Air Force Academy for Violating Constitutional Rights,” [press release] March 13, 2014, .

[58]  “American Family Association Bigotry Map,” American Family Association. .

[59]  Liberty Institute, Religious Liberty Protection Kit for the U.S. Military:  How Service Members and Chaplains Can exercise their Legal Rights, (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, 2015) pp. 1-2.

[60]  Laurie Goodstein, “Kim Davis, Kentucky County Clerk, Met Pope Francis,” The New York Times, September 30, 2015, .

[61] “Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC: The Court’s Unanimous Decision,” Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, January 11, 2012. .

[62]  Supreme Court of the United States, 2012, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al., 10-553; see also, Frederick Clarkson, “Papering Over the Differences, The Political Alliance Between Evangelicals and the Catholic Right,” Conscience, vol. XXXIII, no. 2, 2012.

[63]  Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, “Hosanna-Tabor:  A Big Victory for Religious Freedom,” January 20, 2012, .

[64]  Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” The Public Eye, March 22, 2013. .

[65]  C. Peter Wagner, “Can the Government Tell the Church What to Do?,” Communion With God Ministries, February 14, 2012. .

[66]  Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Hope for the Years Ahead,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, April 16, 2014. .

[67]  “Hosannas for the Court,” (Editorial), The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2011, .

[68]  The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “Supreme Court Briefs.”

[69]  Julia Carrie Wong, “’I want education, not indoctrination’: Catholic Teachers and Students Protest Archdiocese,” San Francisco Weekly, April 27, 2015, .

[70]  “Catholic archdiocese of Cincinnati to tweak teacher contract morality clauses,” LGBTQ Nation, March 10, 2015, ; Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance.”

[71]  Victoria Colliver, “Hundreds march against S.F. archbishop’s ‘morality clauses,’” San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2015; Lisa Leff, “San Francisco archbishop wants teachers to not contradict church,” Associated Press, February 6, 2015, .

[72]  Scott Jaschik, “Big Union Win,” Inside Higher Ed, January 2, 2015. .

[73]   Adelle M. Banks, “Religious college presidents agree on ‘calling’ and common threats to their schools,” Religion News Service, February 3, 2015, .

[74]  Frederick Clarkson, “When in Doubt, Religify!  Fear Mongering about Religious Liberty,” Political Research Associates, May 29, 2015, .

[75]  A READY DEFENSE: How to Protect Your Ministry or Faith-Based Business from Legal Attack and Ruin (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, May 14, 2015). .

[76]  Guidelines: Drafting Church Employment and Administrative Policies, (Plano, TX: Liberty Institute, 2015). .

[77]  Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits:  A Legal Guide for Southern Baptist and Evangelical Churches, Schools, and Ministries, (Washington, DC: Alliance Defending Freedom and Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, 2015). .

[78]  A READY DEFENSE (Liberty Institute).

[79]  Frederick Clarkson, “When in Doubt, Religify!”

[80]  Liberty Institute, “Liberty Institute to Announce Religious Liberty Protection Kits at Values Voter Summit,” [press release]. September 24, 2015, .

[81]  Clarkson, “When in Doubt, Religify!” The Liberty Institute took down its public promotion of future manuals for businesses and for college fraternities and sororities after this article was published. But they have not taken down the original article announcing their plans.

[82]  Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits (ADF and ERLC).

[83]  “Statement of Faith: Marriage and Human Sexuality,” Liberty Institute, 2015. .

[84]  “Facility Use Policy,” Liberty Institute website, 2015, .

[85]  A READY DEFENSE (Liberty Institute).

[86]  Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Lawsuits (ADF and ERLC).

[87]  Lauren Davis, “Carson-Newman University granted exemption from discrimination laws,” Local 8 Now, December 3, 2015, .

[88]  Andy Birkey, “Dozens of Christian schools win Title IX waivers to ban LGBT students,” The Column, December 1, 2015. ; See also Liam Stack, “Religious Colleges Obtain Waivers to Law That Protects Transgender Students,” The New York Times, December 10, 2015. .

[89]  Matt Comer, “Belmont Abbey College, other Carolinas colleges receive anti-LGBT Title IX waivers: Charlotte-based group responds with ‘Shame List’,”, December 2, 2015. .

[90]  Jon Green, “Christian university applying for a religious exemption under Title IX imposes religious test for employees,” AmericaBlog, December 11, 2015. .

[91]  Marci A. Hamilton, Professor of Law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University is challenging the constitutionality of the legislative successor to the federal RFRA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), in cases involving local governments and religious land use. She was the lead counsel for the City of Boerne, TX, in Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), the seminal federalism and church/state case holding the federal RFRA is unconstitutional as it applied to the states.

[92]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, pp.115-150.

[93]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, pp. 115-150.

[94]  USCCB, “Anthony Picarello Named USCCB Associate General Secretary,” [press release], October 21, 2011, . Picarello co-edited with Douglas Laycock and Robin Fretwell Wilson, Same Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty:  Emerging Conflicts, (Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2008). This was one year after Picarello joined the USCCB as General Counsel.

[95]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, pp. 120-121.

[96]   9to5, National Association of Working Women et al., to President Barack H. Obama, “Request for Review and Reconsideration of June 29, 2007 Office of Legal Counsel Memorandum re: RFRA,” August 20, 2015. .  Political Research Associates was one of the organizational signatories to the letter to President Obama.

[97]  Simon Brown, “Down With Discrimination: Broad Coalition Of 130 Organizations Asks President Obama To End Taxpayer-Funded Discrimination,” Wall of Separation, .

[98] Jacey Rubinstein, “White House Fails to Reveal Faith-Based Initiative Budget, Though Some Agencies Will Share Theirs,” Political Research Associates, July 20, 2015, .

[99]  Andy Kopsa, “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train,” The Nation, July 2014, ;  see also Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014, ; and Jacey Rubinstein, “White House Fails to Reveal Faith-Based Initiative Budget, Though Some Agencies Will Share Theirs,” Political Research Associates, July 20, 2015, .

[100]  Barry Lynn, “Indiana’s Religion Bill Is Partially Fixed — But There’s More Work to Be Done,” Huffington Post, April, 7, 2015, ; Kopsa, “Obama’s Evangelical Gravy Train.”

[101]  Senator Mike Lee, et al, First Amendment Defense Act, June 17, 2015, .

[102]  Edwin Meese, et al, “Memo to the Movement: Religious Liberty,” Conservative Action Project, July 10, 2015, .

[103]  “First Amendment Defense Act,” USCCB Backgrounder. .

[104]  Dale Carpenter, “More Criticism of the First Amendment Defense Act from the Right,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2015, ;  Walter Olsen, “Gay Marriage and Religious Rights: Say Nada to FADA,” Newsweek, September 10, 2015, .

[105]  Brian Tashman, “Tony Perkins, Arbiter Of Christianity, Says Pro-Gay Christians Don’t Have Same Religious Rights As Conservatives,” Right Wing Watch, May 8, 2014, .

[106]  Frederick Clarkson, “Racial Justice Will Be Top Priority for New Prez of the United Church of Christ,” Religion Dispatches, August 20, 2015, .

[107]  Nick Gass, “Mike Huckabee: U.S. moving toward ‘criminalization of Christianity,” Politico, April 24, 2015. .

[108] Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove,  “The Ugly History Behind ‘Religious Freedom’ Laws: They are about dividing an increasingly diverse electorate that has twice elected a black president,” The Washington Spectator, May 1, 2015. .

[109]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, p. 99.

[110]  Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, p. 8

[111] I discussed this in my 1997 book Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and pointed out that it had already been going on for decades.

[112] Frederick Clarkson, “An unexpected win for religious freedom,” LGBTQ Nation, February 1, 2015, ;  Sally Steenland, “3 Ways to Celebrate Religious Freedom Day,” Center for American Progress, January 16, 2015, .

[113] See for example, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution:  A Moral Defense of the Secular State, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), pp. 91-94; 103-104; Frank L. Lambert, Separation of Church & State: Founding Principles of Religious Liberty (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2014); Frank Lambert, Religion in American Politics:  A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 29. John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution & Secured Religious Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); John A. Ragosta, Religious Freedom:  Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

[114] See, Frederick Clarkson, The Christian Right does not want you to know about this day, LGBTQ Nation, December 7, 2014; Frederick Clarkson, Taking Religious Freedom Day Astray, Political Research Associates, December 23, 2014,; John Ragosta, Religious freedom: A proud day for Richmond, Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 12, 2015,; Frederick Clarkson, An unexpected win for religious freedom, LGBTQ Nation, February 1, 2015,; Frederick Clarkson, Stand in the bright light of history on Religious Freedom Day, The Hill, January 16, 2015,; Rob Boston, Religious Freedom Day 2015:  Resolve To Protect True Freedom Of Conscience, Wall of Separation, January 16, 2015,

[115] See for example, Theo Anderson, “Would Jesus Vote for Bernie Sanders?  With the decline of culture war issues and the rise of crises like climate change, Bernie might actually be able to win over young evangelicals,” In These Times, August 14, 2015, .

[116] Hamilton, God vs. the Gavel, p. 359; and Davis, et al., Restoring the Balance, pp. 17-19

[117] Sophia Resnick and Sharona Coutts, “Not the ‘Illuminati’: How Fundamentalist Christians Are Infiltrating State and Federal Government,” RH Reality Check, May 13, 2014, ; Bruce Wilson, “The Hobby Lobby Case and The Alliance Defending Freedom’s Ties To Christian Reconstructionism,” Twocare: Center Against Religious Extremism, July 2, 2014. ; Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Reconstructionism:  Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influence,” The Public Eye, Spring/Summer 1994, . See also, Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility; Michelle Goldberg, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007);  Julie Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[118] Resnick and Coutts, “Not the ‘Illuminati.’”

[119] Jeremy Tedesco and Kevin Theriot, “ADF recommends policy to protect student privacy in restrooms, locker rooms, Model policy provides solution for public schools,” Alliance Defending Freedom, December 05, 2014, . See also: Cole Parke and Gabriel Joffe, “Alliance Defending Freedom: the Right-Wing Lawyers Fueling Transphobia in Schools,” Political Research Associates, December 18, 2015, .

[120]  Alliance Defending Freedom, IRS Form 990, 2012, .

[121]  Gillian Kane, “Latin America in the Crosshairs: Alliance Defending Freedom Takes Aim,” The Public Eye, Summer 2015. .

[122]  Emma Green, “The Little Sisters of the Poor Are Headed to the Supreme Court: The justices will take on a complicated set of cases related to the birth-control mandate in the Affordable Care Act,” The Atlantic, November 6, 2015, .

[123]  Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “BREAKING: High Court to decide if Government can force nuns to provide contraceptives,” November 6, 2015, .

[124]  Alliance Defending Freedom, “Supreme Court agrees to tackle abortion-pill mandate’s sham ‘accommodation’: ADF attorneys represent Penn. Christian college, four Okla. Christian universities,” November 6, 2015, .

[125]  “European Court of Human Rights Cases,” The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. .

[126]  Dawn Ennis, “The Two Words That Lawyers for Kim Davis Say Endanger Their Lives,” Advocate, October 21 2015. .

[127]  Ethan Bronner, “At Stanford, Clinical Training for Defense of Religious Liberty,” The New York Times, January 21, 2013, .

[128]  Bronner, “At Stanford.”

[129]  “Briefs,” Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic website. .

[130]  Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund website.

[131]  Sunnivie Brydum, “Gov. Mike Pence Signs ‘Fix’ to Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” The Advocate, April 2, 2015. .

[132] Stephanie Wang, “Conservative groups’ lawsuit says RFRA fix unconstitutional,” Indianapolis Star, December 10, 2015. .

[133]  Mariya Strauss, “Who was behind Michigan GOP’s one-two punch against LGBTQ working families?” Political Research Associates, December 1, 2015 .

[134] Zack Ford, “Protecting LGBT People From Discrimination Is Now Illegal In Arkansas,” Think Progress, February 24, 2015 .

[135] Zack Ford, “Indiana Republicans Introduce The Most Anti-LGBT LGBT Rights Bill Ever,” Think Progress, November,18, 2015 .

[136] Indiana Senate Republicans, “Senate Bill 100 Information.” .

[137] John Ragosta, “Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786),” Encyclopedia Virginia, First published: August 10, 2012, Last modified: July 2, 2014. .

[138]  Elahe Izadi, “The fascinating history of how Jefferson and other Founding Fathers defended Muslim rights,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2015. .

[139]  Frederick Clarkson, “Taking Religious Freedom Day Astray,” Political Research Associates, December 23, 2014. .  This is detailed in Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Public Affairs, 2012.

[140]  See for example, Barack Obama, “Presidential Proclamation — Religious Freedom Day, 2015,” January 15, 2015 .

[141]  Rob Boston, “Seize The Day!: Upcoming Religious Freedom Event Provides An Opportunity For Separation Advocates, Wall of Separation,” January 2, 2015. .

[142] Pension Right Center, “St. Peters University Hospital Retirement Plan: The Law and the Facts,” February 29, 2012. .

[143] Hazel Bradford, “Appeals court upholds ruling denying church-plan status for health-care system,” Pensions & Investments, December 29, 2015. .

[144] Laurence Kaplan v. Saint Peter’s Healthcare System, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, No. 15-1172, December 29, 2015

[145] Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, “Third Circuit Rules St. Peter’s Healthcare Not a Tax Exempt Church Plan: Appeals Court Rules St. Peter’s Healthcare is Not a Church Plan Exempt From ERISA Laws,” Globe Newswire, December 31, 2015. .






5 Ways PRA Exposed the Corporate Right in 2015

What would our democracy look like without the influence of corporations and industrialists? It has become more and more difficult in recent decades to imagine an answer to this question. As the late political scientist and PRA’s founder Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, neoliberalism—or deregulated market capitalism—”seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.” Indeed, corporate money and influence are remaking our democratic institutions, from the dark-money lobbying groups and think tanks pushing limitless deregulation, to individual wealthy donors putting their thumbs on the scales of public policy in state legislatures and using new Voter ID laws to suppress the vote. As progressives contemplate how to build a movement for justice that can effectively counter such forces, it is necessary to understand how the Corporate Right—what Hardisty termed the Chamber of Commerce wing of the conservative movement—is collaborating with others on the Right to advance its agenda.

PRA has written much in the past about the Right’s attacks on the most vulnerable groups of working people: women, people of color, LGBTQ people. During 2015, we launched the new PRA Economic Justice Research Project to identify some of the current trends and to develop a fuller analysis of who exactly is behind the ongoing transformation of our democratic infrastructure.  Our research has fueled some of the most effective recent campaigns for economic justice, including: the fight for domestic workers’ rights, the fight for paid family leave laws, and the fight for fair wages for restaurant workers. Here are five ways our work exposed the Corporate Right’s shenanigans in 2015.

  1. Rick Perry NFIBIn January and February, we looked into the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) spearheading of a lawsuit that tried to halt, and then delay, the implementation of a new Department of Labor rule that will allow home care workers to be covered by the same minimum wage and overtime protections that other workers enjoy under U.S. labor law. I also wrote an article about the IFA’s involvement in this fight that was published by In These Times.
  1. fun-at-red-lobserFrom January through March, we examined how restaurant owners, through their own corporate lobbying group – the National Restaurant Association, are fighting against paid sick days and better pay for employees. We also discussed how Walmart’s announced pay raises were little more than PR stunt to change its anti-worker image.
  1. AitkenIn March, we began seriously investigating the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional association claiming to represent 275,000 HR professionals worldwide. SHRM is headquartered in Alexandria, VA, and pulls in about $143 million per year. It has a 501c3 charitable foundation (the SHRM Foundation) whose activities are still a mystery to us; and it also has an immigration policy advocacy arm, the Council for Global Immigration, which has its own separate structure. Mostly, however, SHRM acts as a lobbying organization for the corporate side of the HR equation. It hosts lavish conferences to which members are invited, and it does train members in how to comply with workplace law. But it also uses its policy and advocacy departments to actively lobby for employer-side changes in workplace law. For example, SHRM opposes the USDOL’s expansion of the overtime rules, the NLRB’s expedited elections rule, mandatory paid leave laws, and much more. Despite SHRM’s strong dedication to curtailing worker rights and workplace protections, SHRM presents to the public, the media, and often to its own membership, a studiously neutral political facade, and attempts to appear not to take sides in employer-employee relations. I attended SHRM’s legal and legislative conference in March 2015, and reported out my findings in a series of blog posts.
  1. Arthur BrooksIn May and June, we examined how the Christian Right may or may not be informing and involving itself with corporate lobbying groups, think tanks and other vehicles funded by industrialists to remake our political economy. We turned toward the narratives around poverty that began to come out of right-wing think tanks and Christian conservative groups this year—both secular groups like the American Enterprise Institute, and religious groups like the Acton Institute, as well as quasi-Christian groups such as the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Based on this research, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye magazine on Faith-Washing Right Wing Economics, or how the Corporate Right uses Christian Right organizations and messaging to advance its agenda. Also, during the national debate surrounding the confederate flag, we discussed how the neo-confederate South lost to (ironically) free market neoliberalism.
  1. devos familyFinally, in December, we looked even more closely at the DeVos family as an example of one wealthy Christian Right family that is involving itself deeply in political work. Although they work primarily in Michigan, this Koch-like family is branching out to other states on some key issues: education privatization, promulgation of RFRA laws, and so-called “right to work.” We think they are not alone; that other wealthy donors are becoming bolder and more willing to call the shots politically in their joint Christian/Corporate Right projects.

As we ring in 2016, I am sad to say I will no longer be heading up PRA’s Economic Justice research work. I look forward to seeing what the team is able to accomplish in the future based on this important groundwork. Special thanks to Kelsey Howe, Jacey Rubinstein, Jaime Longoria, Eli Lee, Doug Gilbert, and Jonathon Orta for their assistance.

Ed. note. PRA would like to thank our outgoing Corporate Right researcher, Mariya Strauss, whose work over the last year has been invaluable. We wish her the best in her new adventures!