The Myth of Christian Persecution

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, is increasingly taking center stage in the Right Wing’s dramatization of “Christianity under siege”—part of a growing manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”) to further blur the division between church and state.

Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham

Addressing the crowd at the Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference earlier this month, Graham claimed that secularists—whom he refers to as “antichrists”—have taken control of America.

“There are storms that are coming,” Graham warned. “The only hope for this country is for men and women of God to stand up and take a stand. We’ve got to take a stand. We cannot back up. We cannot run. We cannot retreat. We need Christians running for school boards. … We need men and women of God who take local elections serious.”

Emphasizing this point, Graham continued, “Who says we can’t be in politics? The gays and lesbians are in politics, I can tell you that. All the anti-God people are in politics. They’re there. Why shouldn’t the church be there? Who says we can’t speak up? Who says our voice can’t be heard?”

Graham’s call for Christians to “take a stand” echoes the demands of last November’s “I Stand Sunday.” The event, which was simulcast around the country, was organized by a coalition of local churches and national right-wing organizations in Houston, Texas as a response to the City of Houston subpoenaing the sermons of five conservative local pastors who were suspected of engaging in political activities beyond the purview of what is allowed for a church to maintain its tax-exempt status. Sponsors of the event included some of the leading right-wing parachurch organizations in the country, including the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Liberty Counsel and the National Organization for Marriage also signed on as partners.

Reporting on the event (which took place two days before the 2014 midterm elections), FRC’s President Tony Perkins wrote, “Last night, with thousands of people packing the pews of Grace Community Church—and tens of thousands more at nearly 800 churches from all 50 states—Houston sent a message to the nation: ‘Don’t mess with the pulpits of America.’… We pray that our nation, which this event proved is ripe for spiritual awakening, will use I Stand Sunday as a launching off point for greater cultural engagement.”

The subpoenas came as part of the prolonged fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the city’s first housing and workplace nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ people, as well as other targeted classifications, including race, sex, and religion.

Previously one of the only large cities in the U.S. without a nondiscrimination policy, the Houston City Council approved HERO in May 2014 with a vote of 11-6. The ordinance did not pass without a fight, however—groups like Texas Values (an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink network), the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Family Research Council attacked the ordinance with anti-transgender claims that it would somehow protect predators and sex offenders. There were also threats to recall Mayor Parker and any city council member who voted in favor of the bill.

Following HERO’s passage, an anti-LGBTQ coalition called “No Unequal Rights” led by local and national church groups like the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Samuel Rodriguez’s National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference began collecting signatures to challenge HERO with a referendum. When the petition effort failed, opponents of the law filed a lawsuit against the city, demanding the referendum be placed on the ballot.

As part of the discovery process of the Religious Right’s lawsuit against them, the city’s outside counsel issued subpoenas to five pastors in Houston who were suspected of overreaching their tax-exempt restrictions, to collect information related to how the pastors communicated with their congregations about the petition process. Backed by a team of ADF lawyers, the pastors (dubbed the “Houston 5”) claimed their rights were being violated. On both the Left and the Right, many critics (including the ACLU) agreed that the subpoenas were too broad, and they were ultimately withdrawn, but I Stand Sunday—organized to “stand with pastors and churches to focus on the freedom to live out our faith free of government intrusion or monitoring”—went ahead as planned, and the Houston 5 seem likely to the join the cast of bakers and wedding photographers cited by the Christian Right as evidence of allegedly widespread and growing persecution.

I Stand Sunday speakers included FRC’s Tony Perkins; former Governor of Arkansas and then Fox News personality Mike Huckabee; Eric Stanley from the ADF; and Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Local Houston pastors Magda Hermida, a Cuban immigrant, and Khanh Huynh, a Vietnamese immigrant, also spoke, comparing their experiences of Communist violence and oppression to Mayor Parker’s “marching boots of tyranny.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans—and an even greater majority of elected officials—identify as Christian (a recent study by the Pew Forum found that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, and that 92% of current Congressional members identify as such), this mantra of “Christian persecution” is gaining traction around the country.

The City of Charlotte, NC—Franklin Graham’s hometown—is currently considering an expansion to its own nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A statement released by BGEA echoed the same anti-transgender claims that were used in Houston, claiming that such protections would give “sexual predators access to children.”

Another Charlotte resident, David Benham, is also working to prevent the expansion of equal rights protections for LGBTQ people there (the vote is scheduled for March 2). Benham has become a leading spokesperson for the “Christian persecution” camp since the HGTV television series that he and his twin brother, Jason, were scheduled to host was canceled after reports emerged of David Benham making anti-gay statements at a prayer rally in 2012 outside of the Democratic National Convention. (Right Wing Watch posted a recording of Benham discussing “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” HGTV also took fire from their viewers over an interview with anti-LGBTQ activist Michael Brown, where David Benham claimed that LGBTQ people were possessed by “demonic forces” and that once he succeeds in recriminalizing abortion, he will next defeat the “homosexual agenda” and Islam.)

Defending his comments, Benham reasserted the theme of persecution, arguing, “[T]here is an agenda that is seeking to silence the voices of men and women of faith.”

In BGEA’s statement about the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in Charlotte, Benham declared, “What’s going to end up happening, with the result of the language (of the ordinance) is our religious liberties are going to come under attack. … Not only do Christians need to stand up for what’s right, but America needs to protect our children and our children’s children.”

David and Jason Benham also spoke at the I Stand Sunday event in Houston.

Earlier this week, the American Family Association—another I Stand Sunday sponsor—released its new “Anti-Christian Bigotry Map,” which features groups and organizations that “are deeply intolerant towards the Christian religion. … [groups whose objectives are] to silence Christians and to remove all public displays of Christian heritage and faith in America.”

In a press release, AFA’s President Don Wildmon warned, “Across our nation there is a concerted effort to silence Christians who believe in the time-honored definition of marriage and who believe that imposing dangerous and harmful sexual behaviors such as homosexuality or transgenderism on the public and, particularly, on young children is not something that society should encourage.”

Will U.S. prisons soon be overflowing with leaders of the Christian Right? PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson reports that any leaders of the Christian Right, from megachurch pastors like Rick Warren to the top prelates in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have repeatedly threatened civil disobedience (and worse) over marriage equality, reproductive rights, and nondiscrimination laws:

“The notion that freedom is obedience to their particular notion of God’s order … reveals their theocratic world view and sheds light on their preposterous claim that Christianity is ‘unanimous’ with regard to marriage.

“Christian denominations, notably United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, and increasingly others (not to mention other religious traditions) recognize and celebrate same-sex marriages all the time.”

If there is a “concerted effort” to be wary of, it is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of religious liberty and the advancement of their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination.

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Know Your Neighbors Hits the Road

With a sweet woman named Rhonda at the wheel, our bus carefully merged onto the highway and headed south toward Colorado Springs. As the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains, Sweet Honey and the Rock’s rendition of “Ella’s Song” played over the speaker system, reminding us in gentle, insistent harmonies, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

We’d converged on Denver over the previous few days to attend the annual Creating Change Conference, hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force. Creating Change is one of the premier national gatherings of LGBTQ organizers and activists, and attracts thousands of people from as far away as Uganda and China. While Colorado Springs is a notorious right-wing hub (a recent study ranked it as the fourth most conservative major city in the U.S.), Creating Change offers a safe haven for folks like us. Gender-neutral bathrooms are the norm, workshops topics range from grassroots fundraising to anti-racist organizing, and glitter is everywhere.

… But we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes—even to Colorado Springs.

As the U.S. Right’s global impact on the lives of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color increases, the pressing question is: “What can we do?” Know Your Neighbors—a collaborative project between PRA and Soulforce—aims to respond.

Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) is dedicated to countering right-wing attacks with reliable analysis, educational programming, cross-issue collaboration, creative engagement of our adversaries, and direct action in order to expose and resist the true agendas of right-wing leaders, institutions, and ideologies, both domestically and internationally. Our goal is to challenge American culture war “exporters” with education and mobilization of social justice activists and organizations based in the same communities.

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

The Know Your Neighbors (KYNship) bus tour in Colorado Springs, February 2015

After months of planning and strategizing, the close proximity of this year’s Creating Change venue to Colorado Springs offered an exciting opportunity for KYNship to step into action.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

So 27 of us—a cross-section of activists, progressive faith leaders, researchers, and educators—set out to learn, share, and connect, driven by a shared understanding that marriage equality in the U.S. does not equal freedom for all. Ongoing violence and persecution experienced by people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people, the continued exploitation of poor and working class LGBTQ folks, and the erasure of disabled, femme, undocumented, indigenous, and young people in this movement demonstrate our shortcomings and the tremendous amount of work yet to be done.

While the onslaught of attacks on human and civil rights may come from any direction, the most robust opposition over the past few decades has emerged from the U.S. Right. Organizations like Focus on the Family—which made Colorado Springs its home in 1991—are at the forefront of this offensive, and their reach extends far beyond the city limits. Focus on the Family’s influence alone can be felt in over 150 countries around the world.

Bringing a bus full of social justice organizers and activists to its doorstep—including one of Uganda’s leading LGBTQ activists—was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Over the span of four hours, KYNship took an inspiring group of Creating Change attendees (and Rhonda) on an educational tour of Colorado Springs. We explored the history, structure, mechanisms, and contemporary trends of the U.S. Right, highlighting its global impact on LGBTQ people, women, people of color, young people, and reproductive rights. We examined the intersections of these oppressions, the role of the U.S. Right in their perpetuation, and discussed effective strategies for resistance.

Upon returning to Denver, we exited the bus with new knowledge, deeper understanding, stronger analysis, and a new sense of community in our collective commitment to resisting the Right as part of our ongoing pursuit of justice and liberation for all people.

Indeed, we even forged kinship and community with our fearless driver, Rhonda.  Upon our return to the conference hotel, Rhonda approached the KYNship leadership team with a big smile. “I learned so much tonight! You know, my daughter… she’s gay too, and the folks you all were talking about—they make her life awfully hard sometimes. Thank you all so much for what you’re doing!”

This tour was both the beginning of a much bigger project to challenge U.S.-based culture warriors and the continuation of a long history of bold and brilliant resistance to right-wing oppression.

… Because we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Creating Change is over now, and the group of us that came together for KYNship’s first project have all returned home. Each of our home communities contain their own networks of committed social justice organizers and activists—and their own elements of right-wing opposition. In some cases (like with Focus on the Family), the targets of our resistance are more obvious. But in many situations, key players in the global export of U.S. culture wars maintain a low profile here in the U.S., or present themselves as far more moderate than their international campaigns reveal them to be. Groups like the World Congress of Families in Rockford, Illinois and people like Sharon Slater in Gilbert, Arizona often fly under the radar of even the most well informed activists.

KYNship is eager to step into that gap, supporting local social justice activists in identifying key opposition leaders in their communities, understanding the local and global impact of their work, and strategizing principled and effective modes of confrontation and resistance. Please visit www.KYNship.org to learn more and get involved!

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U.S. Theologian Wants Martyrs Against America

Last year, I published an article in The Public Eye magazine in which I summarized a disturbing trend among some thinkers and leaders of the Christian Right—a vision of theocratic political resistance that includes violence and civil war. Some of them are concerned that they are losing on the issues of marriage equality and abortion, on which they claim the future of Christendom rests. These thinkers and leaders are considering their options, from varying degrees of accommodation and acceptance, to massive resistance and revolution.

What happens along this spectrum of response may define much of the history of our time. One of the words on which this history may hang is “martyr.” A discussion about its use by theocratic theologian Peter Leithart has broken out in the blogosphere. The low-profile Leithart may not have expected that people would take his prophetic call for martyrs so seriously.

Peter Liethart

Peter Liethart

 

The roots of the current brouhaha go back to July 3, 2013, when David Lane, a leading Christian Right political operative, published an essay titled “Wage War to Restore a Christian Nation.” His post (written on the far right news site World Net Daily), which was later scrubbed from the website, was a clarion call for contemporary religious war against the supposedly pagan government of the United States.

Lane’s apparent break with the gleaming vision of a theocratic America was remarkable because he is such a pivotal figure on the contemporary Christian Right. As Rachel Tabachnick recently reported here at Political Research Associates, Lane was the principal organizer of The Response, a prayer rally for political dominion and candidate training last month in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—headlined by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R). Lane has been a key organizer of scores of Christian Right political development events, called Pastors Policy Briefings, over the past two decades. Lane has also been in the news recently as the organizer of a controversial trip to Israel for Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus and 60 members of the RNC.

Lane is fond of quoting from Birmingham, Alabama-based theologian Peter Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast, especially Leithart’s views on the need for Christian martyrs to confront what he calls the heresy of Americanism. And that is what he did in his unsuccessfully hidden op-ed:

“American Christianity has not done a good job of producing martyrs… Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus an imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood.”

But when writer Bruce Wilson recently attributed Leithart’s words to Lane at the Huffington Post, Leithart took to the blog at First Things (founded by neoconservative Catholic priest John Richard Neuhaus)—apparently to create a diversion in the form of correcting the record.

When Christians are faithful witnesses,” Leithart explained, “they are an irritant to the powers that be. And the powers that be want them out of the way.”

If they can get Christians to get out of the way on their own with articles like Wilson’s, so much the better,” he declared suggesting complicity between Wilson and the mysterious, unnamed “they.”

If they can’t, sterner measures might be necessary,” Leithart darkly continued. “This isn’t imaginary. It’s the history of early Christianity in its relation to the Roman Empire. It’s the history of dozens of countries in the present day.”

The idea that writer Bruce Wilson is a tool of a creeping; Christianity-persecuting cabal is just conspiracy theory. And of course, Leithart presents no evidence for the insinuation on which his conspiracy theory relies.

In any case, Leithart claims that the quotation at issue “has made the rounds in the feverish backwaters of leftist watchdog groups, with their nightmares about a theocratic takeover of the federal government. Every time it’s quoted, the implication is that I’m advocating violence. People see the word “martyr” and think “suicide bomber.” 

He cites no one, including Wilson, who says that Leithart is advocating violence. The problem is not with the unnamed groups and individuals who accurately quote Leithart’s words. The problem lies with Leithart’s words and the ideas that they express. Let’s consider them.

Leithart can quibble about unnamed people misunderstanding the word “martyr” but he can’t hide the obviously violent and theocratic implications behind his use of the Latin words imperator and imperium in this context. He says that Christians must compel the rest of society to acknowledge Jesus as a contemporary analog of the Roman imperial government, and his particular totalist view of God and his church—or else.

Leithart doesn’t acknowledge it, but he also addressed the matter of martyrdom at First Things (which calls itself America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”) in 2013. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision, which struck down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act, Leithart saw battle lines being drawn between conservative notions of Christianity and the emerging culture and law of the United States. He and others reject this emerging version of America.

In Greek, martyria means ‘witness,’ specifically, witness in a court,” he wrote. “At the very least, the decision challenges American Christians to continue to teach Christian sexual ethics without compromise or apology.”

The only America that actually exists,” he continued, “is one in which ‘marriage’ includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

Leithart’s make-or-break vision would either end what he describes as anti-Christian tyranny or, failing that, build a new Christian nation—or nations and new notions of the definition of Christendom. His call for martyrs to provoke society to the point of violence—or accept a theocratic imperium—is exactly the kind of demagogic threat that people are concerned about.

Leithart now insists that his notion of Christian martyrdom is to be carried out “peaceably”—by proclaiming “the truth about the unborn and the truth about marriage, regardless of what the Supreme Court has said or will say in the next few months.”

Martyrdom doesn’t involve killing,” he insists. “It’s jolly defiance, ready to be slandered, insulted, beaten, killed for the one who died for me.”

The degree and manner of civil disobedience envisioned by various elements of the Christian Right remains to be seen. There are clear tensions between those who can apparently live with the social changes taking place in the country and those who can’t. There are also those who see the so-called culture war as not about single issues, but about the survival their particular vision of Christendom itself, and whether or not their kind of Christians are willing to fight for it.

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Opening Pandora’s Box: The Rise & Fall of the Right’s School Voucher Pioneer

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

Polly Williams, the Wisconsin African American lawmaker behind the nation’s first school voucher program, believed vouchers could help students of color in urban Milwaukee. Conservative donors and right-wing think tanks saw her program as opening the door to the privatization of public education. Education reform has come to mean different things to different people: from improving public education to privatizing it out of existence.

 

**This article appears in PRA’s Winter, 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine**

Polly Williams, the “mother of school choice,” passed away on November 9, 2014.  The moniker dates back to the late 1980s, when Williams broke ranks with her fellow African American and Democratic state legislators to partner with conservatives on Milwaukee’s school voucher program, the first of its kind in the nation.1  The Milwaukee voucher program was signed into law in 1990 by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.2 A quarter-century later, conservative pro-privatization funders and advocates continue to advance their free-market agenda as if it is the salvation of the nation’s most underserved students. Vouchers, once stigmatized by their use in fighting integration of schools, are being marketed as the vehicle of a “New Civil Rights Movement.”

Polly Williams became an instant celebrity within the conservative-dominated world of school vouchers, although she did not share their privatization agenda. Williams supported a limited program targeting the city’s poorest families, sometimes referred to as “charity vouchers” or compensatory vouchers3 by her conservative allies. Those allies saw an opportunity to use urban students of color as a wedge to break down the alliances defending public education. They also viewed it as an opening that could be expanded over time to employ “universal vouchers”, or vouchers for students of families in all income brackets, and ultimately the privatization of public education.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group 2011. All rights reserved.

Young students in Philadelphia in 2011 demonstrate support for privatization programs. Image via Pennlive.com. Photo used with the permission of PA Media Group ©2011. All rights reserved.

But by the late 1990s, Williams had been pushed aside, just as she feared that students of color from low-income families would be pushed aside by the diverging agenda of her White conservative partners. Within a few years, Williams was ridiculed by her former allies, described as “irrelevant” and no longer useful.

Nevertheless, upon her death, the school privatization leaders and organizations reclaimed her—memorializing her for her role as a pioneer while omitting her later disillusionment with the movement.

Williams’ alienation from the movement she helped birth offers a cautionary tale for those who believe that vouchers, tuition tax credits for private schools—or even quasi-public charter schools—may offer a magic bullet to equitable education for underserved urban children.

Whose interests are served?

In 1995, Milton Friedman, an economist and the intellectual dean of the school privatization movement, stated, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.”  School privatization’s “New Civil Rights” theme appears to be little more than a public relations campaign that camouflages this shift.  Privatization advocates and their funders have appropriated the language of civil rights and use the dissatisfaction of underserved communities to promote the marketization of public education, an agenda that promises to leave many students of color behind.

Our nation has “consistently and purposefully underserved students of color,” notes Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at University of Texas-Austin, in a 2013 Texas Education Review article on the current reframing of school choice as a civil rights issue.4 Heilig adds that the school choice movement depends heavily on African American and Latino leaders such as Williams. Janelle Scott, a professor in the graduate school of education and the African American Studies Department at the University of California-Berkeley, writes in Critical Studies in Education about the tension between exposing the drivers of privatization while simultaneously understanding the limited options of underserved urban families:

In raising questions about the lack of commitment to eradicating structural inequalities by the managers of choice, I do not denigrate the individual choices parents of color are making for their children within the policy framework largely dictated by an elite invested in privatizing public education … What is important is to illuminate the elite networks that are funding and paving the way for educational policy to be radically altered along business models.5

The neoliberal privatization movement has presented “choice” as a civil rights effort—and as the only option for changing the status quo for these historically underserved students of color. It does so despite the preponderance of evidence that, as the authors of one educational study from 2002 wrote, “school choice, on average, does not produce the equity and social justice that proponents spin.”6

From the time of desegregation forward, disillusionment with integration and the failure to improve education in many urban communities led to the development of “independent black schools.”  These were neighborhood private schools owned and operated by African Americans, often run on shoestring budgets, and often featuring Afrocentric or multicultural curricula.  In 1984, Dr. Joan Davis Ratteray founded the Institute for Independent Education to organize these schools, which numbered almost 300 by 1990 and were attended primarily by the children of Black middle-class parents.

Polly Williams sent her children to one of Milwaukee’s independent, nonsectarian, Black private schools.  Hoping to expand access for poor students whose parents could not afford the tuition, Williams advocated for a voucher program that would be limited to the lowest income families and to nonsectarian schools. She was, from the outset, concerned that raising income caps and including religious schools within voucher programs would again leave behind the poorest students.

Yet once Williams opened the door, the juggernaut of privatization began to roll through—a movement that blames teachers and teachers’ unions for low educational outcomes of students in underserved schools and fails to address (or even rejects) the role of structural inequalities in these same communities.

Ratteray was also a school choice supporter, and wrote a rousing op-ed in the New York Times supporting it. However, as the experiment in Milwaukee came to fruition, Ratteray grew wary of vouchers as an economic incentive. She described the existing independent Black schools as being the result of a social need, not a business venture.  “If you put on it this idea that each kid will bring a certain amount of money, it will change that,” Ratteray warned.7 Her words proved prophetic.

“School choices” or opportunities for profit

The term “school choice” encompasses a broad range of programs, from charter schools to vouchers.  The more accurate term, “private school choice,” refers to programs that use public funding to pay or subsidize tuition for private school students.  “Public school choice,” meanwhile, includes a variety of programs that allow students to attend schools outside their assigned district, magnet schools, and charter schools, the single most rapidly expanding sector of choice. (Charters are technically public but are independently operated, sometimes by for-profit corporations, and are exempt from many state and local regulations. See related sidebar, “Monetizing Charter Schools.”)

In the category of “private school choice,” there are now approximately 40 programs in 19 states, plus Washington, DC, and state legislatures are continuing to introduce bills for new or expanded programs.  Advocates claim there is great public demand, despite the fact that a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that opposition to the use of public funds for private schools is at 70%, its highest level ever recorded in that survey.8

What’s more, as documentation accumulates showing that vouchers have failed to improve education outcomes, privatization advocates increasingly point to the budget savings that these programs supposedly provide.9

In addition to vouchers, the category of private school choice now includes tuition tax credit programs, a legislative maneuver that lets business redirect taxes owed to the state toward “scholarships” for student tuition at private and religious schools. These tax credit programs, sometimes referred to as “neovouchers” or back-door vouchers, have received less public scrutiny than vouchers, even as they currently comprise the largest private school choice programs in numbers of students. (See related sidebar on tax credit programs.)

School choice’s segregationist roots

Before African American and Latino children became the focus of a multi-million dollar, pro-privatization public relations campaign, vouchers had a distinctly racist heritage. As author Kevin Kruse explains in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, vouchers were part of a deliberate strategy in the 1950s and 1960s to circumvent school desegregation: “In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would instead receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”10

“Massive Resistance” was the name adopted by the united effort of White leaders and politicians to prevent desegregation. “Freedom-of-choice” plans were used in several states to perpetuate segregation, as they allowed students to “choose” their school while, in effect, retaining segregated Black and White schools.11

Some locations followed through with their threats to close public schools.  Prince Edward County, in Virginia, closed down its entire public school system from 1959 to 1964. Prince Edward only reopened integrated schools following the Supreme Court’s 1964 ruling in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County that Virginia’s tuition grants for sending white students to private schools were unconstitutional.12

The privatization agenda was birthed by segregationists in the 1950s, but it was kept alive in subsequent decades by Milton Friedman and sustained by wealthy conservative donors (and the infrastructure built with their dollars).  School privatization became a key part of the “devolution” of government, advocated by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, and the 50-state network of self-described “free market” think tanks coordinated through the State Policy Network.13 The names of the major funders of school choice, including the Bradley Foundation and the DeVos and Walton families, should automatically raise red flags for progressives.

“In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers,” education scholar and anti-privatization activist Diane Ravitch wrote.14

Williams’ “unholy alliance”

Annette “Polly” Williams was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1980 and served until 2010.  She also ran the 1984 and 1988 Wisconsin statewide campaigns for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid. In the late 1980s, despite intense objections from her fellow Democratic legislators and organizations such as the NAACP, Williams joined forces with conservatives to push through the nation’s first voucher program.

What Are Tuition Tax Credit Programs?

Tuition tax credit programs, sometimes called neovouchers, are “private school choice” programs.1 Individuals or corporations receive credit against their state taxes for funding “scholarships” used to pay private school tuition (or to attend a public school outside the student’s district). The largest corporate tax credit program in dollars and in numbers of students is in Florida, where companies can receive a 100% credit against their state taxes for the amount given to the nonprofits, which distribute the tuition funds.

Businesses are often lauded in local papers for their “donations,” but these contributions cost the company nothing in states with a 100% credit, and very little or nothing in states like Pennsylvania, where a company is credited 75% for a one-year and 90% for a two-year contribution (plus federal deduction). Claims of tax savings for states have largely been based on one 2008 Florida report in which key figures affecting the calculation were admitted to be guesses by the authoring agency.2

Most of the 14 states with tax credit programs do not require the participating schools to administer standardized tests or adhere to requirements on curriculum and teacher qualifications. The majority of these students attend religious schools (currently 81.5% in Florida). While many of these schools are excellent, a significant percentage use Christian fundamentalist curricula, (such as A Beka, Bob Jones University Press and other textbooks) that promote Young Earth creationism, hostility toward other religions, and revisionist history.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, activists and legislators proposed a variety of programs to provide public funding to Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, some of which were in serious financial jeopardy.  Activists in the effort were largely liberal until the 1980s and 1990s, when conservatives and religious leaders began to capitalize on the idea as a model that could open the door to a larger voucher program.

In addition to her Republican allies in the state legislature, Williams’ partnerships with conservatives included the Bradley Foundation and its former president Michael Joyce; former GOP Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a champion of conservative welfare reform; and George and Susan Mitchell, Wisconsin’s leading pro-voucher advocates. (Williams described these partnerships as an “unholy alliance” in an interview with the Heartland Institute, an interview in which she was also described as the “Rosa Parks of vouchers.”15)

In 1988, Gov. Thompson vetoed legislation to increase funding for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and provide additional teachers to reduce class size—but he included a voucher program proposal in his state budget. The Bradley Foundation provided research, polls, publications, and a legal defense of the voucher program.

In an effort to make the plan more palatable to Wisconsin legislators, Thompson reduced the scope of his statewide voucher plan for 1989 to include only non-sectarian schools in Milwaukee County. Thompson assured voucher advocates that once the bill passed, the program could be expanded.

Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at such conservative bastions as the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Yet as Williams went public with her concerns about the raising of income caps and universal vouchers, the conservative backlash mounted.

Polly Williams rejected Thompson’s plan, but she introduced a bill that would pass and be signed into law in April 1990: the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). (Thompson even held a symbolic re-enactment of the signing in one of Milwaukee’s independent Black community schools.)

Virtually overnight, Williams became the public face of the pro-voucher movement, speaking at conservative bastions like the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, and the California State Republican Convention. Williams also gave high-profile interviews, including one on 60 Minutes and one with Rep. Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC, which aired on the Christian Broadcast Network.16

In his book Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education, author Jim Carl noted that there was a moment when it seemed that conservatives and liberals might converge in agreement on the concept of compensatory vouchers. Carl described it as a program “with attributes originally championed by left-liberal policy makers, free-school advocates, and community activists from the 1960s.”17 But, as Carl points out, “social conservatives of various stripes did not wish to stop at nonsectarian, compensatory vouchers.”18

Likewise, it would not be long before the agenda of Polly Williams and that of her conservative allies would diverge.

The alienation of Polly Williams

Of all the partners in the “unholy alliance,” Michael Joyce and the Bradley Foundation were among the most unlikely allies for the African American community.  The Bradley Foundation had been a longtime funder of author Charles Murray, including his book The Bell Curve and its discredited theory of Black intellectual inferiority. For decades, the Bradley Foundation has been at the epicenter of reactionary policies, including welfare reform, opposition to affirmative action, and claims that “moral poverty,” rather than structural inequity, is the source of social ills in poor urban communities.  The Bradley Foundation has also provided millions to the Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, Free Congress Foundation, and other conservative think tanks.19

In 1992, the Bradley Foundation collaborated with Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a nondenominational organization founded from the dissolution of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Educational Foundation.20 Funded by Bradley and several Wisconsin businesses, the program provided vouchers for students, including those attending religious schools, and was designed to “ratchet support for expanding the publicly funded choice program.”21 To garner Protestant and Jewish support, the new program was not limited to Catholics.  In 1995, Gov. Thompson followed through with his plans to gradually extend the program, and by the 1998-99 school year, 70% of the students in the MPCP attended religious schools.22

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Polly Williams speaks about school choice programs in Wisconsin in 1998. Photo by Meg Jones and courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Williams was also concerned about the raising of income caps for the voucher program, as this gradually shifted funding toward families who were already sending their children to private schools. She objected to universal vouchers, stating, “Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.”23

In a 2002 interview, Williams explained the parameters under which she supported vouchers and which, by that time, had led to rifts with her former allies. Ironically, the interview was with George Clowes, senior fellow at Heartland Institute addressing education policy. Clowes later wrote a report for Heartland responding to the lack of improvement in educational outcomes in the Milwaukee voucher program and disillusionment of some school reformers. Referencing Milton Friedman, Clowes called for a shift from “charity vouchers” for needy students to universal vouchers.

Journalist Bruce Murphy, who published a 2001 article about Williams and her growing disillusionment with Milwaukee’s program, wrote that Williams understood school choice as an experiment. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” Williams told Murphy.  Murphy, himself a former teacher and principal at one of Milwaukee’s independent Black private schools, describes the conservative strategy as a “two-fer”—an agenda to eliminate teachers’ unions and build the myth of school privatization as a cheaper education alternative.24

As Williams went public with her complaints, the conservative backlash mounted. From 1990 to 1997, Williams received speaking honorariums and expenses totaling $163,000, more than any other Wisconsin legislator.  By 2000, this figure had dropped to just $400.25

In 1998, Williams gave a frank interview for a chapter in The Politics of School Choice, co-written by a professor at Regent University. Williams expressed her concern that school choice was becoming a program for middle-class Whites who did not need public assistance:

The whites that promote Reverend Floyd Flake (school choice advocate in Jamaica, Queens, New York) are out to replace public education for their own children, not for blacks.  I have a black agenda for black parents.26

Michael Joyce, of the Bradley Foundation, had formerly claimed that “the Lord God” had led him to support Williams.27 By 2001, however, Joyce claimed that Williams had told him she didn’t much like White folks, and that she kept referring to school choice as “a Catholic movement.”28 Joyce added, “She was poised to be and could have been the leader of school choice.  But she stepped aside and Fuller became the leader.”

Fuller is Dr. Howard Fuller, who replaced Polly Williams as the African American standard-bearer for the movement. Fuller and Williams attended the same high school, and later shared concern about the future of underserved children in Milwaukee as well as their opposition to universal vouchers.

Fuller is a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools with a previous history as a Black nationalist. In 1969, using the name Owusu Sadukai, Fuller initiated Malcolm X Liberation University “as a way of providing Black students with a revolutionary alternative to mainstream Black colleges.”29

In 1995, Fuller became the director of the Bradley Foundation-funded Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University and founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options, also heavily funded by Bradley and by Walmart heir John Walton.30 Fuller continues today to serve as a major spokesperson for school choice and is currently on several boards, including the Milwaukee Region Teach for America.

Meanwhile, by 2006, Williams had shifted her efforts to supporting her city’s public school system.  She formed the African American Education Council and worked with Milwaukee’s teachers’ union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to develop a strategic plan for improving MPS.31

Following the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 and his efforts to dramatically expand the voucher program, Williams again vocally objected. “They have hijacked the program,” Williams said in 2013.32 George Mitchell, a major pro-voucher donor, immediately responded, describing Williams as “irrelevant” and saying he had had no dealings with Williams after about 1994 or 1995.33 “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and her party affiliation,” Mitchell told a reporter.3435

Although Williams was discarded by her allies, her name and face were still used throughout conservative media as an African American Democratic supporter of school vouchers.  Sean Hannity lauded her in his 2002 book Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism. In 2013, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform included Williams on a list of “venerable Davids against the Goliaths of education.”36

Following her death in November 2014, Polly Williams was memorialized as the “mother of school choice.” In a post on the American Federation for Children (AFC) website, Chairman Betsy DeVos described Williams’ legacy as living on in the lives of “hundreds of thousands of children across the country who benefit from school choice.”37 That post, along with most media coverage of Williams’ death, omitted any mention of her later disillusionment with voucher programs.38

The bad news about “choice”

The school privatization movement has brought together an odd array of political bedfellows.  Some are drawn by the prospects of profiting from the conversion of education into a multi-billion dollar industry.  Others are ideologues, opposed to public education on either libertarian or religious grounds.  Yet another group is comprised of religious leaders, perhaps not ideologically opposed to public education but anxious to use vouchers or neovouchers to fill the desks of their own schools. Ironically, in some districts, charter schools (see related sidebar) have even drawn students away from private religious schools.

Recently, more religious leaders have promoted privatization programs as a way to save religious schools with dwindling enrollment.  The 2011 conference of the National Leadership Roundtable of Church Management, a Catholic organization, called for an aggressive strategy to implement tuition tax credit programs or neovouchers in all 50 states.  Speaker B. J. Cassin, founder of Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation, told the audience, “Think of the effect if all Catholic schools, not just the ones that we mentioned here, had the ability to have this kind of revenue come in [from tax-credits]; it changes the environment completely.”39 Like many other promoters of privatization, Cassin frames his agenda as altruism: “We have a social justice issue that we are presenting, and part of that is to eliminate the discrimination of the inner city kids.”40

Monetizing Charter Schools

Charter schools are technically a “public school choice,” but operated by an outside group that is not bound by some of the same local and state regulations as traditional public schools.1 Today charter schools are the fastest growing sector of school choice, with more than two million students attending over 6,000 charter schools.

Charters were originally intended to foster innovative approaches to teaching in small, autonomous schools. Excellent charter schools exist; overall, however, charters have failed to outperform traditional public schools. According to a recent study, Pennsylvania charter schools covered less material in both math and reading than did traditional public schools (the equivalent of 29 days of reading and 50 days of math).2

Charter schools have become a primary vehicle for the monetization of education.  Although most states require charters to be run by nonprofit organizations, many contract out the management of charters to for-profit companies, sometimes with little separation between the charter board and the for-profit management.3 In some cases, the buildings and facilities are purchased by the for-profit arm and leased back to the nonprofit, or even resold by the for-profit to an investment company.4 Entertainment Properties, Inc., a publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT), now owns the buildings and/or facilities of 60 charter schools.5 According to an Ohio investigation, 40 percent of that state’s charter schools pay lease to a for-profit entity or out-of-state landlord. Rising lease costs are taking increasingly large percentages of the schools’ budgets, with one school paying more than 80 percent of its total budget in lease to a for-profit entity. 6

In Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the largest private school choice programs (both are corporate tax credit programs or neovouchers), many of the students who receive neovoucher money attend fundamentalist Christian, conservative evangelical, or nondenominational schools.  Both Florida and Pennsylvania tout their tax credit programs as providing an opportunity for minority students to access a better education.

But instead of the Afrocentric curricula supported by Williams and Fuller, the A Beka and Bob Jones University curricula used in many of these schools are written with little regard for the heritage of children of color.  Their textbooks promote nonfactual and revisionist history as well as Young Earth creationism and climate change denial.41

Most vouchers and neovouchers fund students attending schools with no curricula requirements or public accountability.  Georgia’s tax credit program, which allows for donations from both individuals and corporations, makes it a criminal offense to track how that money is spent.  Georgia’s program also promised to designate scholarships for students in “failing public schools” from low socioeconomic levels, but as a 2012 New York Times article exposed, the program has “[benefited] private schools at the expense of the neediest children.”42 In Georgia and elsewhere, these programs are showing signs of re-segregating students by both race and income. Many of the students subsidized by these programs were already enrolled in private schools.

Michael W. Apple, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, says that universal vouchers, or voucher programs for which all income levels are eligible, expose the privatization movement’s hidden agenda. “They want to minimize public schools and eventually eliminate as many government services, public employees and public institutions as possible,” writes Apple.43 In Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, Apple argues that “placing schools in a market does not interrupt the stratification of education, except for a very limited group of students. Instead, as study after study has shown, existing hierarchies are simply recreated.”

International examples include Chile, where vouchers were part of the reforms initiated during the rule of Augusto Pinochet and with the assistance of the “Chicago Boys,” economists trained under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago.  Research on Chile’s program indicates that vouchers failed to produce improved average educational outcomes, but exacerbated stratification and inequality.44

Although excellent private schools exist, multiple studies have dispelled the myth that private schools academically outperform public schools on average.45 A 2006 study not only “[challenged] assumptions of private school superiority overall” but also found substantial differences among various kinds of private schools. The poorest performers were conservative Christian schools.

The “New Civil Rights” brand

In his 2003 book Voucher Wars, attorney Clint Bolick recounts how he anticipated legal challenges to the Milwaukee voucher program and contacted Polly Williams to offer legal representation. Bolick describes Bradley Foundation president Michael Joyce as having been wary of Williams but understanding the “necessity of their temporary alliance”; he describes Joyce as pursuing school choice as “a ‘silver bullet’ issue: the type of program that could destroy a key pillar of the welfare state.”46

Bolick was known for his work against race-based affirmative action. However, as the need grew for legal defense of emerging school choice programs, Bolick turned his attention to it and co-founded the libertarian, public interest law firm Institute for Justice in 1991 with seed money from David and Charles Koch.47

Branding education privatization as a civil rights effort has been a deliberate strategy. In his book, Bolick describes how he helped orchestrate the mainstream media’s first use of civil rights language in defense of school choice while discrediting a voucher opponent as “blocking the schoolhouse doors to minority schoolchildren.”48 In 2002, Dick DeVos addressed the Heritage Foundation, emphasizing the need for his audience (wealthy, white conservative donors and activists) to remain behind the scenes and have other faces as the public advocates of school choice.49

As a 2001 Economist article spelled out, the strategy of linking the privatization movement to the wishes and activism of “poor blacks, not rich whites” has helped disguise the people actually behind these campaigns.50

Another primary goal of the privatization movement is to drive a wedge between two pillars of the Democratic Party: African American voters and teachers’ unions.  The same Economist article, “Blacks v. Teachers,” touted this growing wedge. While the article may have been premature in celebrating the success of both vouchers and charter schools, efforts to drive a wedge between Black voters and the teachers’ unions have been remarkably successful.

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, for example, a pre-convention event for the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) essentially became an hour-long attack on teachers’ unions.  At the DNC in 2012, Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, Newark Mayor Cory Booker (now a U.S. Senator), and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (and husband of Michelle Rhee), headlined a screening of the fictional movie Won’t Back Down, which promotes parent trigger bills, a mechanism for replacing unionized public schools with non-union charters.  A model bill for the “Parent Trigger Act” and much of school choice and privatization legislation is designed and promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which coordinates with the State Policy Network and has become notorious for promoting “stand your ground” legislation and propagating climate change denial.

Current Trends

Despite its failure to improve educational outcomes, Wisconsin’s voucher program is now 25 years old and continues to grow. Today, the program includes about 30,000 students and represents the second largest de facto school district in the state.

Characterized by instability and lack of accountability, Milwaukee’s voucher program has resulted in numerous stories like one in 2013 in a local paper51 about a minister and his wife who accepted $2.3 million in taxpayer funding only to close their Lifeskills Academy abruptly during the school year. Although their house in Wisconsin was foreclosed, the couple moved to a gated community in Florida, where they opened another school. Available test results showed that in the 2011-2012 school year, only one student in their Lifeskills Academy tested proficient for grade level in reading, and none in math.

Polly Williams bemoaned the co-opting of her voucher vision by national conservative figures, including Grover Norquist, William Bennett, and Lamar Alexander (who was Secretary of Education from 1991-1993).  Now a U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander is poised to take the helm of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP).  In early 2014, Alexander introduced a bill in the Senate that would redirect $24 billion of federal education funding and incentivize states to use the money to fund 11 million school vouchers for students in poverty. These could be used for private schools or even homeschooling.52 On her website, Ravitch wrote simply:  “Bottom line: the Alexander plan will destroy public education in the U.S.”53

In the same post, Ravitch quotes a Pennsylvania Republican who warns that Alexander’s package only includes $2,100 dollars per voucher, meaning that the “School District of Record” must provide the rest of the tuition.  Ravitch continues, “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan.  This is a radical plan.  It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”

The marketing of both private school choice and public charters promises to escalate over the next two years, masquerading as the best option for underserved children. This continues even as traditional public schools are stripped of funding, teachers, art and music programs, libraries, and more.  In Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue, Julian Vasquez Heilig closes with a warning about where we may be headed:

So if you are a “choice” proponent interested in civil rights—understand that in markets there are winners and losers.  In the case of choice, the long-term losers in a large-scale market-oriented education continue to be historically underserved students of color and special populations.54

Heilig continues, “Moving our schools from the public sector to the private sector is a false choice.”

The story of Polly Williams serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of partnering with school choice donors, politicians, and think tanks. Those concerned about the future of public education should not be fooled: the agenda of these players is about privatization and market-based reform.  Williams continues to be used as the face of a movement that never intended to fulfill her personal vision.  But once she opened the door for her right-wing allies, it could not be closed.

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Endnotes

  1. Williams’ program is described as the first voucher program in the nation, but it was preceded by programs used by states to fight desegregation.  In 1964, the Supreme Court found county and local tuition grants and tax credits used to fund White students in private schools to be unconstitutional.
  2. The program that passed was added to the Budget Amendment Bill by Democratic Senator Gary George, but drawn from previous bills authored by Polly Williams. Pro- and anti-voucher activists and education scholars credit Williams. See John F. Witte, The Market Approach to Education: An Analysis of America’s First Voucher Program (Princeton University Press, 2000).
  3. Matthew J. Brouillette, “Vouchers,” School Choice in Education: A Primer for Freedom in Michigan (Mackinac Center, 1999), http://www.mackinac.org/2081.
  4. Julian Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue,” Texas Educational Review Vol. 1 (2013), pp.83-94, http://txedrev.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Heilig_Reframing-the-Refrain_TxEdRev.pdf.
  5. Janelle T. Scott, “A Rosa Parks moment? School choice and the marketization of civil rights,” Critical Studies in Education, 54:1 (2013), 5-18.
  6. S. Wells, J. Slayton, & J. Scott, (2002). “Defining democracy in the neoliberal age: Charter school reform and educational consumption,” American Education Research Journal 39:2 (2002), 337-361.
  7. Mark Walsh, “Black Private Academies Are Held Up as Filling Void Seen as ‘Response to Desperate Situation,’” Education Week, Mar. 13, 1991, http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1991/03/13/10180005.h10.html.
  8. “Which way do we go? The 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” Gallup, Kappan 95:1 (Sept. 2013), http://pdkintl.org/noindex/2013_PDKGallup.pdf.
  9. Jeff Spalding, The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money? Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (2013), http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/The-School-Voucher-Audit–Do-Publicly-Funded-Private-School-Choice-Programs-Save-Money-.aspx
  10. See Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton University Press, 2007).
  11. “Virginia’s ‘Massive Resistance’ to School Desegregation,” University of Virginia’s Digital Resources for United States History, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/xslt/servlet/XSLTServlet?xml=/xml_docs/solguide/Essays/essay13a.xml&xsl=/xml_docs/solguide/sol_new.xsl&section=essay.
  12. “The Closing of Prince Edward County Schools,” Virginia Historical Society, http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince.
  13. Fred Clarkson, “Exposed: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks are Transforming U.S. Politics, The Public Eye (Fall 2013), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2013/11/25/exposed-how-the-rights-state-based-think-tanks-are-transforming-u-s-politics/.
  14. Ravitch is quoted in Adam Bessie, “G.E.R.M. Warfare: How to Reclaim the Education Debate From Corporate Occupation,” Project Censored 2013 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012), 289.
  15. “The Model for the Nation: an exclusive interview with Annette Polly Williams,” Heartland Institute, Aug. 30, 2002, http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2002/08/30/model-nation-exclusive-interview-annette-polly-williams.
  16. Jim Carl, Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011), 117.
  17. Carl, Freedom of Choice, 32
  18. Ibid, 133.
  19. Erica Lasden, Community Voice or Captive of the Right? The Black Alliance for Educational Options (People for the American Way, July 2003), http://www.pfaw.org/sites/default/files/file_237.pdf.
  20. “The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and School Choice,” Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society Teaching Case, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Jan. 2007, http://cspcs.sanford.duke.edu/sites/default/files/BradleyChoicefinal_0.pdf.
  21. Bolick, 45.
  22. “Milwaukee Parental Choice Program,” Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, Feb. 2000, http://legis.wisconsin.gov/lab/reports/00-2tear.htm.
  23. “The Model for the Nation.”
  24. Interview with Bruce Murphy, Dec. 12, 2014.
  25. Bruce Murphy, “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams,” Urban Milwaukee, Jun. 27, 2001, http://urbanmilwaukee.com/2001/06/27/murphys-law-the-rise-and-fall-of-polly-williams/.
  26. Hubert Morken and Jo Renee Formicola, The Politics of School Choice (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 205.
  27. Alex Molnar, “The Real Lesson of Milwaukee’s Voucher Program,” Education Week, Aug. 6, 1998, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/*/http://epsl.asu.edu/EPRU/articles/EPRU-9708-38-OWI.doc.
  28. “The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams.”
  29. Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report, May 25, 2006, p. 77, http://www.greensborotrc.org/pre1979_labor.pdf. Also see Larry Miller’s review of Fuller’s recent autobiography for Fuller’s explanation of why he partnered with prominent conservative think tanks and funders, accessible at https://millermps.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/howard-fuller-autobiography-no-struggle-no-progress-a-critique-3/.
  30. Community Voice or Captive of the Right?
  31. Action Plan to Improve Milwaukee Public Schools: 2007-2012 (2007), http://www.milwaukeepartnershipacademy.org/pubs/mps_strategic_plan_7-26-07.pdf.
  32. Patrick Marley, “Past school voucher advocate rips Gov. Walker’s Plan,” Journal Sentinel, May 16, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/207753841.html.
  33. Daniel Bice, “School choice advocate George Mitchell blasts ex-lawmaker Annette Polly Williams,” Journal Sentinel, May 29, 2013, http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/noquarter/school-choice-advocate-george-mitchell-blasts-ex-lawmaker-annette-polly-williams-b9922201z1-209452781.html.
  34. Bice, “School choice advocate.”
  35. George Mitchell continued his critique on the blog Right Wisconsin: “Williams was instrumental in getting the original program to Gov. Tommy Thompson’s desk. But from that day forward Williams was, directly and indirectly, an opponent … The addition of religious schools to the program evoked her racial and religious bigotry … She complained that ‘whites’ and ‘Catholics’ were going to take over the program.”  For more, see George Mitchell, “Where the Journal Sentinel Fails, Again,” Right Wisconsin, May 21, 2013, http://www.rightwisconsin.com/perspectives/208281431.html.
  36. Jeanne Allen, “A Nation at Risk No More,” Center for Education Reform, https://www.edreform.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ANationatRiskManifestoFINAL.pdf.
  37. “American Federation for Children Mourns the Loss of School Choice Pioneer Annette ‘Polly’ Williams,” American Federation for Children, Nov. 10, 2014, http://www.federationforchildren.org/american-federation-children-mourns-loss-school-choice-pioneer-annette-polly-williams/.
  38. Rachel Tabachnick, “The Right’s School Choice Scheme,” The Public Eye (Summer 2012), http://www.politicalresearch.org/2012/08/01/the-rights-school-choice-scheme/.
  39. See the publication on the 2011 conference, “From Aspirations to Actions: Solutions for American Catholic Schools,” p. 41.
  40. “From Aspirations to Actions,” 41.
  41. One of many examples is Bishop Victor Curry in Florida, a vocal advocate of the state’s corporate tax credit program. The school run by his ministry includes 120 students with tuition provided by the program and uses A Beka curricula.
  42. Stephanie Saul, “Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools, New York Times, May 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/education/scholarship-funds-meant-for-needy-benefit-private-schools.html.
  43. Michael W. Apple, “Cannot vouch for vouchers,” FightingBob.com, Apr. 11, 2004, http://www.fightingbob.com/article.cfm?articleID=200.
  44. See Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola, “The effects of generalized school choice on achievement and stratification: Evidence from Chile’s voucher program,” Journal of Public Economics 90 (2006), 1477–1503, http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101%20/HsiehUrquiola%282006%29.pdf; and Patrick J. McEwan, Miguel Urquiola, and Emiliana Vega, “School Choice, Stratification, and Information on School Performance: Lessons from Chile,” Economia (Spring 2008), http://www.columbia.edu/~msu2101/McEwanUrquiolaVegas%282007%29.pdf.
  45. Christopher Lubienski and Sarah Theule Lubienski, Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement: New Evidence from NAEP Mathematics Data (National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Jan. 2006), http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP111.pdf.
  46. Bolick, 23. Bolick points out that Gov. Tommy Thompson was, not coincidentally, pursuing welfare reform at the same time.
  47. Bolick, 35.
  48. Bolick, 27.
  49. Rachel Tabachnick, “Strategy for Privatizing Public Schools Spelled Out by Dick DeVos in 2002 Heritage Foundation Speech, Talk to Action, May 3, 2011, http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/5/3/12515/58655.
  50. “Blacks v teachers,” Economist, Mar. 8, 2001, http://www.economist.com/node/526704.
  51. Erin Richards, “Leaders of closed Milwaukee voucher school are now in Florida,” Journal Sentinel, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/leaders-of-closed-milwaukee-voucher-school-are-now-in-florida-b99185323z1-240384541.html.
  52. “Alexander Proposes 11 Million $2,100 “Scholarships for Kids,” Jan. 28. 2014, http://www.help.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=b52ee7f7-d826-4677-ad4a-0a8e94130ac3.
  53. “Lamar Alexander Proposes Sweeping Voucher Legislation,” Jan. 28, 2014, http://dianeravitch.net/2014/01/28/lamar-alexander-proposes-sweeping-voucher-legislation/.
  54. Vasquez Heilig, “Reframing the Refrain.”

 

Tuition Tax Credits

  1. Kevin G. Welner, NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
  2. Kevin Welner, “How to Calculate the Costs or Savings of Tax Credit Voucher Policies,” National Education Policy Center, http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/NEPC-PolicyMemo_NeoVouchers.pdf.

 

Monetizing Charters

  1. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2009), http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf.
  2. Valerie Strauss, “A dozen problems with charter schools,” Washington Post, May 20, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/05/20/a-dozen-problems-with-charter-schools/.
  3. Noah Pransky, “Charter schools making big profits for private companies,” WTSP, Aug. 22, 2014, http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/investigations/2014/08/21/charter-school-profits-on-real-estate/14420317/.
  4. Marian Wang, “Charter School Power Broker Turns Public Education Into Private Profits,” ProPublica, Oct. 15, 2014, http://www.propublica.org/article/charter-school-power-broker-turns-public-education-into-private-profits.
  5. “Public Charter Schools List,” EPR Properties, http://www.eprkc.com/portfolio-overview/public-charter-schools-list/.
  6. Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel, “Charter school’s lease deal scrutinized,” Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 12, 2014, http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/10/12/charters-lease-deals-scrutinized.html.

The Response: A Christian Right Rally for Dominion

The Christian Right hopes that the mass prayer rally tomorrow, January 24, at Louisiana State University will be one of the largest in recent history.  Organizers are also seeking a thousand clergy willing to be trained to run as Christian Right candidates for office at all levels of government—the controversy when the event was announced last December (when they included claims that natural disasters are the result of abortion and support for marriage equality) notwithstanding.

The event, known as The Response, will be hosted by Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) and is a follow-up to the large prayer rally in 2011—also called The Response—that served as the de facto launch of the presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX).  Some 30,000 people turned out for the 2011 event, which was unprecedented in the history of American politics.

But whether or not the organizers are able to meet the expectations and the high bar set in 2011—the numbers will not tell the whole story.

Organizers of the Jan 24, 2015 "The Response" in Baton Rouge, LA, hope to beat the turnout of the 2011 "The Response" in Houston, TX

“The Response” in Houston, TX in 2011

The Response in 2011 was largely organized by top leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a movement that has evolved from historic Pentecostal and Charismatic evangelicalism. Many of the NAR leaders are open about seeking cultural and political dominion over the rest of society, as Rachel Tabachnick detailed in her groundbreaking study in The Public Eye.

NAR leaders were prominently involved in organizing the event, notably Alice Patterson, Doug Stringer, and Jim Garlow, who headed the campaign for the anti-marriage equality Proposition Eight in California.  Numerous NAR leaders played roles or were prominently present at the event, including Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and NAR’s central figure, C. Peter Wagner.  Doug Stringer is said to be the principal organizer for this year’s The Response in Baton Rouge.

The Christian Right had hoped to rally around one candidate for the GOP nomination—and Rick Perry was their great, White, hope—and The Response was a way to give their blessing without actually formally endorsing the candidate.  The honorary co-chairs of The Response included Focus on the Family founders James and Shirley Dobson, The Urban Alternative president Tony Evans, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Richard Land,  Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Nance, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference president Samuel Rodriguez.

But like the best laid plans of mice and men, Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign faltered, even with the help of several smaller events which were also organized under the rubric of The Response in key states.  The Christian Right did not manage to find a plausible candidate against the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney.

A lot of the same organizations and money behind the 2011 event is also involved in this year’s event, notably from the American Family Association and United In Purpose/Champion the Vote.  These groups guided by political operative David Lane, and have been organizing state level events called Pastors Policy Briefings for years, particularly in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, early states on the Republican presidential nomination calendar.  The Pastor Policy Briefings are all-expense-paid events for clergy and their spouses, intended to ground conservative clergy in the dominionist worldview of the organizers, and to showcase candidates who are likely to appeal to the Christian Right.

Training Theocratic Candidates in the Name of Liberty

This time, although Gov. Jindal is the host and keynote speaker, the event seems to be more about movement-building than about propelling the ambitions of a single potential candidate.  At the end of 2014, Jindal sent a letter to a reported 100,000 pastors (presumably gleaned from the Pastor Policy Briefings) with the aim of getting a thousand of them to come to Baton Rouge the day before and attend something called The Issachar Training to prepare to run for office. Jindal claimed that the Lord has a role for them to play “in protecting Religious Liberty in our nation.” He also said this can be achieved by clergy engaging “in the public square with Biblical values… to reset the course of American governance,” and thereby bring “America back to God.”

The Issachar Training and The Response, while technically unrelated, are both funded by the American Renewal Project of the AFA, led by Lane.

“The thought that came to me,” Lane told the Christian Examiner, “if the Lord called 1,000 pastors to run for an elective office, and each of them had an average of 300 volunteers, that would be 300,000 grass root, precinct-level, evangelical conservatives coming from the ground up, engaged in the political process. It would change America!”

“Nobody’s confused that politicians are going to save America,” Lane continued. “These engaged evangelicals would be voting for their biblically-based conservative values.”

Same Event, Different Year

Contrary to some reports, this year’s event is not just “similar” to the 2011. In addition to the sponsoring organizations and organizers being the same, so are the details.

“Isn’t just like The Response — it is The Response,” said PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick, who wrote about The Response in 2011.  “They are using the same web site and many of the video endorsements from 2011—including one by Samuel Rodriguez.”

“They also didn’t bother to update their prayer guide from 2011,” she added.

Indeed, the prayer guide became a national controversy soon after the December announcement of the Baton Rouge rally, because it suggested that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for legal abortion and growing support for marriage equality in the United States.  In order to avoid worse and more, they claimed, repentance is necessary.  The prayer guide was quickly scrubbed from The Response web site — but not before the contents had been documented and exposed:

“We have watched sin escalate to a proportion the nation has never seen before.  We live in the first generation in which the wholesale murder of infants through abortion is not only accepted but protected by law. Homosexuality has been embraced as an alternative lifestyle.  Same-sex marriage is legal in six states and Washington, D.C.  Pornography is available on-demand through the internet. Biblical signs of apostasy are before our very eyes.  While the United States still claims to be a nation ‘under God’ it is obvious that we have greatly strayed from our foundations in Christianity.

“This year we have seen a dramatic increase in tornadoes that have taken the lives of many and crippled entire cities, such as Tuscaloosa, AL & Joplin, MO.  And let us not forget that we are only six years from the tragic events of hurricane Katrina, which rendered the entire Gulf Coast powerless.”

Although The Response pulled back the controversial rhetoric, there is no indication that they have in any substantive way changed their views—any more than the candidates they train are likely to hold views much different than these.  The idea of taking cultural and political dominion in order to save America from God’s wrath is not new, and whether David Lane et al succeed in getting a thousand pastors to abandon their pulpits to become politicians remains to be seen.  But the determination of the Christian Right to develop and sustain a theocratic electoral capacity seems undiminished.

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Meet Joe Scheidler, Patriarch of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Click here for the full issue.

Click here for the full issue.

Nearly 30 years later, anti-abortion activists still work from Joe Scheidler’s blueprint. Could Scheidler’s story provide any clues to where the faults might lie in their strategy?

 

**This article appears in PRA’s Winter, 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine**

Abortion has been legal—with restrictions—in all 50 states for nearly 42 years, and anti-abortion activist Joe Scheidler has been fighting to make it illegal again for just as many of them. Still comfortably ensconced in his Chicago home, Scheidler, at 87 years old, is father, “Godfather,” and leader to generations of zealots. They continue using tactics Scheidler designed as they protest in the legislature, outside clinic doors, and even across the ocean, all with the goal of criminalizing—and removing access to—safe, legal abortion.

Now that the anti-abortion movement has grown more powerful in the last few years than it has been at any point in the history of legal abortion, it is worth examining where Joe Scheidler’s architecture is still being used—and where it might be decaying or vulnerable.1 Although the days of having a clinic door physically blocked by human bodies or of having abortion providers picketed at their own homes are mostly a thing of the past, today’s assault on legal abortion differs only slightly from these methods.

Joe Scheidler

Joe Scheidler

AN ANTI-ABORTION HOW-TO MANUAL

Pro-Life Action League (PLAL), the anti-abortion advocacy group Scheidler founded in 1980, may not have the name recognition of Operation Rescue (the militant anti-abortion group best known in the 1990s for blocking abortion clinics and terrorizing patients and providers), or National Right to Life Committee (an umbrella group for the state and local affiliates of the national pro-life movement). Still, PLAL has had a profound impact on the movement. Scheidler’s 1985 book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion2, became the handbook of those hoping to put abortion providers out of business with tactics ranging from creating mild nuisances to outright harassment and borderline stalking.

Those tactics haven’t changed much in the 29 years since the book was published. Some of the book’s tips, like “conduct a blitz”—coordinating a group of anti-abortion activists to enter a clinic and refuse to leave until the police arrive, all the while attempting to talk patients in the waiting room out of undergoing abortion—no longer can be legally attempted. But other tactics detailed in Closed, such as protests at hospitals, medical offices, or other businesses affiliated with abortion providers, still happen with great frequency. Meanwhile, so-called “sidewalk counseling” has become the signature activity of choice for abortion opponents, using scripts that are often based on the “Chicago-style” training method established by Scheidler and his colleagues.

Groups such as 40 Days for Life promote a constant clinic presence, in some cases even at buildings that only refer for, rather than actually offer, abortions on site. Other organizations, either national or local in scope, trade the allegedly silent (but often actually quite audible) prayers for graphic signs, amplified street preaching, and chasing of potential clinic patients and staff all the way to the building’s entrance.

These groups are also gaining the advantage in the courts. For years, local buffer zones were able to provide an element of protection for clinic patients in some cities across the country. But the Supreme Court’s decision in June of 2014 to eliminate Massachusetts’ buffer zone has led to new efforts to tear down remaining patient safety areas, and to even bolder anti-abortion activity outside abortion clinics.

Anti-abortion activists still document license plates at clinics3, as Scheidler encourages in Chapter 60 of Closed. They still gather in large groups, and while they may not physically block the clinic doors, they instead line the sidewalks on each side as near to the door as possible, 4 using their numbers and presence to bar the entrance. They still write complaints about providers and clinics to file with local departments of health, and they still wait on the streets to document a medical emergency on the rare occasion that an ambulance may be called to the building.

INSPIRING ACTIVISTS AND CRIMINALS

The inspiration for much of this activity belongs to Scheidler. Trained first as a Benedictine monk and next as a journalist, Scheidler began his anti-abortion activism career first with Illinois Right to Life Committee and next with another anti-abortion group called Friends for Life. Scheidler claims he was forced out of both positions due to his unwillingness to work with boards or wait for permission from others to engage in his activist stunts. Scheidler used his severance pay to establish Pro-Life Action League, where he could act on his own impulses without being curbed by anyone out of fear of potential lawsuits.

And lawsuits there were. Most famously, Scheidler became the accused in NOW v. Scheidler, 5 a class-action lawsuit filed in 1986 by the National Organization for Women and a large number of abortion providers, declaring that a multi-state activist network called the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), also founded by Scheidler, was conspiring with other anti-abortion activists and groups in a plot to close clinics through “racketeering.”

The racketeering charges never stuck, but Scheidler’s “Godfather” moniker did, and although it evokes the Mafia’s history of shady activities, he continues to claim it.

PLAN, according to Scheidler, was a coordinated effort to organize other anti-abortion groups from across the country who were willing to take direct, physical action against clinics. Scheidler writes in Chapter 68 of Closed, “Go National: Join the Activist Network,” that activists are encouraged to work in national networks to move from “random picketing and sidewalk counseling” to “blitzes of abortion clinics, picketing of doctors’ and clinic operators’ homes, vigils … a national day of rescue … and a national day of amnesty for the unborn, during which efforts would be made to close down as many abortion clinics across the country as possible.” PLAN’s national conventions occurred annually from 1984 to at least 1997, 6 and Scheidler credits the Atlanta conference in 1987 as being the birthplace of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue.

Terry was just one of many anti-abortion activists who attended yearly PLAN conventions who would eventually go on to block clinics and harass patients and clinic workers, or worse. As part of PLAN, Scheidler introduced the idea of “regional directors” to coordinate their shared mission to end abortion. Starting with PLAN’s 1985 convention in Appleton, Wisconsin, he only welcomed attendees who espoused “militant” anti-abortion activism, according to James Risen and Judy L. Thomas’s book Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. 7

Some of those attendees and their close contacts would become the most notorious and often jailed activists of their time. John Ryan, the original “rescuer” of St. Louis, Missouri, attended the early conventions to explain his tactics in clinic blockading, and eventually formed Pro-Life Direct Action League. 8 Joan Andrews, the movement “martyr” who served years 9 in prison for criminal trespass at clinics in multiple states, 10 attended when she was not in jail. Don Treshman of Rescue America, 11 Andrew Burnett 12 of Advocates for Life Ministries of Portland, Oregon 13 and Chris Slattery,14 who was an Operation Rescue member in New York City before starting a chain of crisis pregnancy centers 15 there, all attended or spoke at the yearly gatherings.

Francis (Franky) Schaeffer, son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, was not just a PLAN convention speaker; he worked closely with Scheidler and wrote the foreword for the 1993 edition of Closed. In his foreword, Schaeffer praised Scheidler and his use of “direct action” against clinics, comparing him to Mother Theresa in Calcutta or Jesus driving the money changers from the temple. “We cannot wait for the ‘abortion problem’ to be solved for us,” he writes. “Street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, we must fight this necessary battle until legalized abortion is relegated to the barbaric past, along with slavery and cannibalism!”

Franky Schaeffer has since renounced his role 16 in helping to forge the powerful alliance of Catholics and evangelicals in what is now the social conservative movement, citing his belief that the leaders were more interested in winning and retaining Republican majorities than ending legal abortion.

When members met in 1994, 17 it was to discuss how much violence is acceptable when it comes to stopping abortion and closing clinics. The battle lines were drawn at that Chicago meeting, as the coalition began to fray over whether it was ever justifiable to commit murder 18 to stop a doctor from performing abortions. While members of PLAN like Burnett in Oregon supported the idea of “Defensive Action,”19 Scheidler and others declined to do so.

Scheidler’s book has a chapter called “Violence: Why It Won’t Work,” in which he explains how violence against an abortion provider or building would make the movement look bad. Even so, he hedges: “We must point out for the sake of proper perspective, however, that no amount of damage to real estate can equal the violence of taking a single human life,” in this case referring to abortion.

He also frequently discusses, in both his writing and in-person remarks, about his continuing support for those who have used violence in the past. “We’ve had trouble with other pro-lifers,” Scheidler told me this summer when I met him in his office in Chicago.20 “We had those who went off the deep end, and then started shooting and bombing and all that stuff. We knew these people, and we had meetings with them. We even have met them after they get out of prison, and so on. They’re still pro-life. They just went too far.”

SHIFTING TACTICS AT THE CLINICS

For himself, however, Scheidler prefers the “direct action” tactics he enthusiastically embraced, such as “blitzes.” Clinics had great difficulty in fending off activists such as Scheidler, other PLAN members, and eventually Operation Rescue. During the 1980s and ’90s, clinic “blitzes,” “rescues,” and barricading became so common that eventually the federal government passed the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, ensuring that anti-abortion activists could no longer use “rescue” style tactics to keep clinics closed and patients from passing through the doors.

Ann Scheidler, Joe Scheidler’s wife, helps run PLAL’s office and organizational operations. Photo courtesy of Wendi Kent.

Ann Scheidler, Joe Scheidler’s wife, helps run PLAL’s office and organizational operations. Photo courtesy of Wendi Kent.

While FACE was a blow to PLAL, Scheidler’s manual still offered many other ways to shut down a clinic. Scheidler encouraged hospital pickets 21 for those facilities that either offered abortion care themselves or had doctors on staff that provided those services at unaffiliated clinics. He developed another chilling tactic called “adopting abortionists,” his term for sending cards to a provider or supporter’s home, calling them to try to talk, dropping off business cards at their offices, or, as he suggested in his book, even what many would call stalking.

In one chapter of Closed, Scheidler crows about an activist’s success in using “adoption” tactics:

He accompanied her on lobbying missions to Springfield, following her from one legislator’s office to another and all the time praying for her conversion. He attended her seminars and encouraged his friends to fill up the front rows at every lecture she gave. He challenged her to public debates, organized people to question her at her talks, sent her pro-life literature, and took every opportunity to try to get her to stop promoting abortion. He succeeded.

Decades later, Scheidler’s advice for establishing direct contact with those who perform or support abortion has been mostly discarded, but some of his ideas occasionally reappear. In 2013, Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a reproductive health and abortion provider at South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas, received two pieces of mail to her home address, both sent from Pro-Life Action League. The first was a letter from Joe’s wife Ann, Pro-Life Action League’s Vice President, asking her to meet for a cup of coffee to discuss why Dr. Chastine performs abortions. Later, she received an invitation to the League’s Christmas party.

Both mailings came just months after PLAL systematically and methodically pressured 22 Dr. Chastine’s private practice into severing ties with her. PLAL’s tactics included protests, letters to other businesses sharing the space, and threats of more public actions against the building if their professional relationships continued.

Scheidler and PLAL helped design tactics such as pressuring providers, blocking clinics, so-called “sidewalk counseling,” and clinic pickets. But even more current anti-abortion tactics, like conducting public relations campaigns “exposing” Planned Parenthood, have roots in Scheidler’s work.

Scheidler and PLAL helped design tactics such as pressuring providers, blocking clinics, so-called “sidewalk counseling,” and clinic pickets. But even more current, popular anti-abortion tactics, like conducting public relations campaigns “exposing” Planned Parenthood, have roots in Scheidler’s work. As early as the 1980s, PLAL smeared Planned Parenthood as a “threat to children,” and claimed the organization had sinister aims in providing information about sexuality, pregnancy prevention, and “contraceptive drugs and devices.” PLAL also accused Planned Parenthood of potentially giving abortion referrals to young teens without the consent of parents.

Such talking points echo in current campaigns by Live Action,23 a youth-based anti-abortion and anti-birth control movement that primarily engages in hidden camera “gotcha” videos purporting to “expose” Planned Parenthood affiliates and other providers of reproductive health care services. Live Action has been a leader in efforts to pressure Congressional lawmakers into defunding the family planning agency and works with other anti-abortion conservative political organizations like Susan B. Anthony List,24 Students for Life,25 Americans United for Life,26 and others, including PLAL.

THOSE GRAPHIC FETUS IMAGES

Today, Scheidler’s organization may be more the base of the anti-abortion movement than the face of it, but when it does don its public face, it likes to use graphic imagery. PLAL still commits to “counseling” outside clinics in Chicago, as well as training “sidewalk counselors” at yearly national conventions, such as the one held in Minnesota, in 2013, or Alabama, in 2014.27 However, its most public events are the “Face the Truth” tours, which take place for one full week each year during the summer, as well as for one day each month during the spring and fall.

On a Face the Truth tour, members of PLAL place large, graphic images of fetal and embryonic remains along a street or public venue, ranging from abortion clinics to major sidewalks in downtown Chicago. The tours, which PLAL said it began in 2000, are similar to the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s (CBR) Genocide Awareness Project, which mounts graphic aborted-fetus displays on campuses and universities, or those of Created Equal, a newer Ohio campaign from Mark Harrington, formerly with CBR.

The goal of such projects, according to Eric Scheidler, Joe’s son and the current executive director of PLAL, is to make people recognize the realities of abortion. The tactic represents an escalation from the early days of picketing at abortion clinics, when Joe Scheidler and others tried to stop patients from entering the building by handing out pamphlets that would often contain similar images.

The images are of grisly post-abortion remains that Scheidler says are real. He often obtained the subjects himself. In Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars,28 author and anti-abortion activist Monica Migliorino Miller details how she and Scheidler, along with a few other activists in Chicago, would remove the remains from a dumpster behind a local clinic, after which Miller would take them home to photograph.29 Later, they would take the remains to churches and ask to hold burials, a ritual that has eventually led to the National Day of Remembrance for Abortion Victims.30

PLAL’S WIDENING SCOPE

For all its influence and reach, PLAL remains a rather lean operation. On its tax documents, it claims only about $1 million 31 in revenue in 2013, mostly from donors it chooses not to disclose, and less than $13,000 in sales from sidewalk counseling tools and other anti-abortion activism products.32 In the same year, PLAL spent about $450,000 on compensation, not including benefits, with over $200,000 of that going to Joe, his wife Ann, and their son Eric. The organization’s biggest expenses are printing, shipping, and postage (perhaps not surprising considering the leaflets, pamphlets, large graphic photos, and other materials PLAL uses in its events).

Considering PLAL’s activism that purposefully pushes the lines of legality, it is surprising that it reported a mere $15833 in legal expenses in 2013.

PLAL’s influence in today’s legal abortion battle landscape isn’t felt only in the U.S. PLAL has long been supportive 34 of Youth Defence, an Irish anti-abortion group that “has been criticized by politicians for adopting the militant tactics of American antichoice activists,” according to Allie Higgins of Catholics for a Free Choice,35 who also reports that Scheidler’s book is used as a handbook for activist tactics by the group. Eric Scheidler joined the group in Ireland 36 for an international pro-life youth event in 2010. This year, the international pro-life youth conference was held in California 37 with Youth Defence, PLAL, and others.

Speaking at this year’s event 38 was Bernadette Smyth of Northern Ireland’s Precious Life. Smyth, who appears to emulate Scheidler’s tactics in her own country, once dismissed criticism of Scheidler’s activities, stating, “Joseph is not guilty of anything but saving women and unborn babies from abortion.”39 In November of 2014,40 a judge found Smyth guilty of harassing the head of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Ireland.

SCHEIDLER’S LEGACY

Now, 30 years after Scheidler published the definitive handbook on how to close an abortion clinic, there are fewer than 800 abortion clinics left in the country. Those clinics that remain have become even more susceptible to harassment, financial pressure, frivolous lawsuits, medical complaints, and massive anti-abortion PR campaigns.

30 years after Scheidler published the definitive handbook  on how to close an abortion clinic, there are fewer than 800 abortion clinics left in the country. Those clinics that remain are still susceptible to harassment, financial pressure, frivolous lawsuits, medical complaints, and massive anti-abortion public relations campaigns. In other words, they remain susceptible to almost every tactic Joe Scheidler first outlined in 1985.

In other words, they remain susceptible to almost every tactic Joe Scheidler first outlined in 1985. The defensive stance of giving Kevlar vests to clinic providers and forming clinic defense teams has had little positive impact.

With the right to a legal, safe abortion increasingly in jeopardy, the need to proactively fight the evolving tactics of the anti-abortion movement is critical. In the 1980s and 1990s, the threat that Scheidler and his cohorts posed to legal abortion access led to a federal lawsuit that managed to distract and hold off the pro-life movement for more than a decade. That lawsuit also led to the drafting and passage of the FACE Act. Today, abortion rights supporters must consider how to take similar bold action to exploit weaknesses in the anti-abortion movement and stop it from continuing to cut off what legal access remains.

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Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker, and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women’s Health is the New “Separate But Equal” and How to Change That. Robin’s articles have appeared at Bitch Magazine, Rolling Stone, Ms. Magazine, Truthout, AlterNet, BlogHer, RH Reality Check, and Care2.org, and she has spoken at national trainings and conference for NOW, NARAL, the National Conference for Media Reform, and Netroots Nation.

Footnotes

1. See, for example: Janet Reitman, “The Stealth War on Abortion,” Rolling Stone, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-stealth-war-on-abortion-20140115.
2. Joseph M. Scheidler, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion (Charlotte: Tan Books, 1984).
3. Robin Marty, “Tracking License Plates at Abortion Clinics? It’s Not Just Happening in Texas,” Talking Points Memo, Aug. 18, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/tracking-license-plates-at-abortion-clinics-it-s-not-just-happening-in-texas.
4. Robin Marty, “Running the Gauntlet,” Politico, June 11, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/abortion-supreme-court-mccullen-v-coakley-107739.html#.VHyonWTF_38.
5. National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler, 510 U.S. 249 (S.C. 1994), No. 92-780.
6. “PLAN holds 1997 Convention in Milwaukee,” Life Advocate Nov./Dec., Vol. XII No. 9 (1997), http://www.lifeadvocate.org/11_97/nation.htm.
7. Judy Lundstrom Thomas, “Wrath of Angels Descends,” Interview with Anne Bower, The Body Politic, Vol. 7, No. 11, Dec. 1997, 17.
8. Josh Glasstetter, “Todd Akin Arrested on May 9, 1987 with Radical Anti-Abortion Group,” Right Wing Watch, Oct. 22, 2012, http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/todd-akin-arrested-may-9-1987-radical-anti-abortion-group.
9. “Pro-Life Leader Joan Andrews Released from Prison,” The Forerunner, Nov. 1, 1988, http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0446_Joan_Andrews_release.html.
10. Brian Caulfield, “Joan Andrews Bell Freed on Unsupervised Parole,” National Catholic Register, Apr. 5, 1998, http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/joan_andrews_bell_freed_on_unsupervised_parole.
11. William Booth, “Doctor Killed During Abortion Protest,” Washington Post, Mar. 11, 1993, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/abortviolence/stories/gunn.htm.
12. “Advocates for Life Ministries to Close,” Ms., Nov. 29, 1999, http://www.msmagazine.com/news/uswirestory.asp?id=1195.
13. “Andrew Burnett Biography,” Life Advocate, http://www.lifeadvocate.org/bio/andrew/bioandrw.htm.
14. “250 Arrested at Jersey Anti-Abortion Protest,” New York Times, Sept. 18, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/nyregion/250-arrested-at-jersey-anti-abortion-protest.html.
15. Cynthia L. Cooper, “N.Y. Launches Probe of Crisis-Pregnancy Centers,” Women’s E-News, Jan. 31, 2002, http://womensenews.org/story/health/020131/ny-launches-probe-crisis-pregnancy-centers.
16. Frank Schaeffer, “How My Dad and I Helped Create the Tea Party GOP and Terrorist Extremism,” Patheos, Nov. 15, 2014, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankschaeffer/2014/11/how-my-dad-and-i-helped-create-the-tea-party-gop-and-terrorist-extremism.
17. Tamar Lewin, “Death of a Doctor: the Moral Debate–Abortion Doctor and Body Guard Slain in Florida; A Cause Worth Killing For? Debate Splits Abortion Foes,” New York Times, July 30, 1994, http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/30/us/death-doctor-moral-debate-abortion-doctor-bodyguardslain-florida-cause-worth.html.
18. Joe Scheidler, “Paul Hill Executed,” Pro-Life Action League, Sept 5, 2003, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2003/30905.
19. Adam Guasch-Melendez, “Grand Jury Won’t Issue Indictment for Abortion Conspiracy,” The Public Eye, March 1996, http://www.publiceye.org/ifas/fw/9603/conspiracy.html.
20. Robin Marty, “On the Sidewalks of a Chicago Clinic: A battle about how to End Abortion,” Clinic Stories, http://www.clinicstories.com.
21. Andrew Fegelman and Jean Latz Griffin, “Public Funds’ Use Key to Abortion Fight,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16, 1992, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-09-16/news/9203240474_1_anti-abortion-pro-life-action-league-cook-county-hospital.
22. Robin Marty, “Working As an Abortion Doctor in the Town Where Dr. Tiller Got Shot,” Think Progress, Feb. 7, 2014, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/02/07/3266341/cheryl-chastine-abortion-harassment.
23. “Live Action News,” http://liveactionnews.org/about.
24. “Top 12 Reasons to Defund Planned Parenthood Now,” Susan B. Anthony List, Apr. 8, 2011, http://www.sba-list.org/suzy-b-blog/top-12-reasons-defund-planned-parenthood-now.
25. “Live Action and Students for Life of America Release Winner of “Tell Congress” Video Contest,” Expose Planned Parenthood, Mar. 15, 2011, http://exposeplannedparenthood.net/newsroom/press-releases.
26. “Planned Parenthood Exposed Partners,” http://plannedparenthoodexposed.com/partners.
27. Anne Scheidler, “Scheidlers Headline at Fourth Annual National Sidewalk Counseling Symposium,” Pro-Life Action League, Aug. 15, 2014, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2014/nscs2014.
28. Monica Migliorino Miller, Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (Charlotte: St. Benedict Press, 2012).
29. Priest For Life Image Collection, http://www.priestsforlife.org/resources/monica.
30. Robin Marty, “Let’s Get Visceral: Anti-abortion Activists Plan Memorial Services for Unborn Fetuses, Complete with Tiny Coffins,” In These Times, Sept. 13, 2013, http://inthesetimes.com/article/15615/lets_get_visceral.
31. Pro-Life Action League, Guide Star Report, p.2, http://www.guidestar.org/ViewPdf.aspx?PdfSource=0&ein=36-3081086.
32. “Pro-Life Action Store Products,” Pro-Life League, https://pro-life-action-league-store.myshopify.com/collections/all.
33. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Form 990, (Washington, DC: 2012), p.10, http://www.guidestar.org/FinDocuments/2013/363/081/2013-363081086-0a0988d5-9.pdf.
34. Angela Nagel, “Why American Pro-Life Dollars Are Pouring Into Ireland,” Atlantic, Jan. 9, 2013, http://www.filmyboxoffice.com/news/why-american-pro-life-dollars-are-pouring-into-ireland.html.
35. Allie Higgins, “Recruiting the Next Generation: How Conservative Groups Influence and Enlist Young People,” Catholics for a Free Choice, 2005, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Recruiting+the+next+generation%3A+how+conservative+groups+influence+and…-a0136262288.
36. Eric Scheidler, “Eric Visits Ireland to Encourage Pro-Life Youth,” Pro-Life Action League, Nov. 12, 2010, http://prolifeaction.org/hotline/2010/vivalavida.
37. Kristina Garza, “Best Conference Yet,” Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust Blog, Nov. 12, 2014, http://www.survivors.la/blog/2014/11/12/best-conference-yet.
38. “Program Schedule,” Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust Blog, 2014, http://www.survivors.la/-program-schedule.
39. Anne Donald, “Guardian of the Right to Life,” The Herald Scotland, Nov. 19, 1999, http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/guardian-of-the-right-to-life-1.261598.
40. Henry McDonald, “Anti-Abortion Activist Found Guilty of Harassing Belfast Marie Stopes Boss,” Guardian, Nov. 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/19/abortion-activist-guilty-harassing-belfast-marie-stopes.

VIDEO: PRA’s Frederick Clarkson Discusses Religious Freedom Day on the David Pakman Show

Political Research Associates’ senior fellow for religious liberty, Frederick Clarkson, joined The David Pakman Show to discuss Religious Freedom Day, and how the definition of religious freedom laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is now being corrupted by the Christian Right into a weapon that can be used to punish individuals for their beliefs or non-beliefs.

Taking Religious Freedom Day Astray

 

Religious Freedom Day may be the most significant national day that most of us have never heard of. It has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993, and commemorates a foundational moment in the history of religious freedom.

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.

 

Considering how central religious freedom is to the Christian Right’s framing of issues ranging from abortion and contraception, to LGBTQ rights, and increasingly even labor concerns, it is seems strange that there is no massive effort on the Right hijack the day for their own purposes. With only a few minor exceptions, they have not. But there is one group worth noting, that generates attention disproportionate to the scale of its activities.

First, a little background.

Religious Freedom Day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, and campaigned into law by James Madison in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founders sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government, and epitomizes how these towering figures of American constitutional history understood religious freedom. And that makes it a problem for the Religious Right, because the bill can in no way be construed as an excuse to discriminate against anyone, or to exempt anyone from adherence to the law of the land.

I recently wrote that the Christian Right really does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day—mostly because the Virginia Statue and the history surrounding it does not support their revisionist narrative of history, nor their contemporary religious and political agenda.

Not even close.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (PDF) not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The short of it is that religious equality was the basis for how the founders thought about the relationship between religion and government, when they authored and ratified the Constitution, and later, the First Amendment. Religious freedom was intended for individuals to be free from coercion by government and powerful religious institutions.

All which brings us to ReligiousFreedomDay.com, which comes up first in a Google search for Religious Freedom Day. The group behind it is a small California evangelical Christian Right agency called Gateways to Better Education, headed by longtime activist, Eric Buehrer. This group is part of a wider movement with a long history of efforts to hijack, or compromise, public schools in order to promote its religious views and to evangelize children. (This is detailed in The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, by Katherine Stewart.)

Gateways is unambiguous about its intentions:

“Gateways to Better Education is a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help public schools teach about the important contribution the Bible and Christianity make to the world.”

 

They insist that “Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity day.'”

All this might seem like a small thing from a small organization. But Gateways enjoys an outsized significance not only because they turn up at the top of Google searches for Religious Freedom Day. They often enjoy boosts from allied national Christian Right organizations. This year, for example, Citizen Link, the political arm of Focus on the Family has taken-up their cause.

Gateways, founded in 1991, teamed up with the Christian Right legal group, Alliance Defending Freedom (and other Christian Right groups) in 2009 for this project. (Uncoincidentally, 2009 was also the year that top Christian Right and evangelical leaders teamed up with scores of Catholic bishops and top neoconservatives to make religious freedom a core of their common agenda, via The Manhattan Declaration.)

Gateways claims to promote an approach that is legal and constitutional for educators, but those who have taken a closer look are not so sure.

Rob Boston at Americans United for Separation of Church and State reported that their initiative was misleading. The then-new Gateways pamphlet “”Free to Speak,” for example, claimed that “students have an unqualified right to include religious material in their class work and homework,” Boston reported. “The reality is different.”

Indeed, Gateways’ is not merely interested in protecting free expression, but opportunistically turning children into evangelical agents and generating conflicts in the classroom that end up in court.

Boston also reported that Religious Right legal groups had been unsuccessful in their efforts to intervene on behalf of kids who inserted religious content into their work “and either received a poor grade or were told to knock it off.” The resulting consensus, Boston says was, “Teachers and school officials have the right to curb students who wish to use classroom assignments for proselytism. The federal courts tend to defer to teachers in this area; judges really don’t want to grade little Johnny’s homework.”

Gateways and their allies added Religious Freedom Sunday to the program in 2010. The idea was to get churches to promote their religious expression campaign on the Sunday before Religious Freedom Day. (This year Religious Freedom Sunday is January 11th, prior to the official Religious Freedom Day on the 16th) . But Boston once again looked askance at the group’s motives and methods.

Gateways, he says, “is notorious for its unsolicited advice to public schools. The group plays fast and loose with the facts, advising teachers on ways to slip fundamentalist Christianity into the lesson plans. My favorite was a Gateways pamphlet a few years ago featuring a talking Easter Bunny who comes to a public school to advise a teacher on how she can teach kids about the resurrection of Jesus.” (Fortunately, educators, parents, and churches do not need to look to Gateways or the Alliance Defending Freedom for guidance in how to navigate religion and the public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has a free book. Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights)

Over the years, Religious Freedom Day has not generated much attention. But times have changed. Religious freedom as a concept is generating more interest today than at perhaps any time since the founding generation. Because this is so it is possible that Gateways and their friends on the Religious Right may this year succeed in generating some distractions from the real meaning of Religious Freedom Day. It is also possible that others of us may also begin to speak out and be heard.

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Seize the Day! (Well, what if we did?)

I recently wrote that the Christian Right does not want us to think about Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the enactment of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. The bill is widely regarded as the taproot of how the founding generation sought to reconcile the relationship between religion and government.

The enactment of the bill has been celebrated annually, mostly via presidential proclamation, since 1993.

And when I say that the Christian Right does not want “us” to think about it, I mean everyone who is not the Christian Right and their allies, and especially not LGBTQ people and the otherwise “insufficiently Christian.”  I think that is why the Christian Right is mostly so eerily quiet about it, even though religious freedom is so central to their political program.

But what if we did?

What if we seized this day to think dynamically about the religious freedoms we take for granted at our peril; freedom that is in danger of being redefined beyond recognition.  What if we decided to seize this day to consider our best values as a nation and advance the cause of equal rights for all?

If we did, we might begin by recalling the extraordinary challenge faced by the framers of the Constitution when they gathered in Philadelphia. They met to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire; and contending with a number of powerful and well-established state churches and a growing and religiously diverse population.

Their answer?   Religious equality.  And it is rooted in Jefferson’s bill.

Jefferson wrote the first draft in 1777 — just after having authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  And it was James Madison who finally got the legislation passed through the Virginia legislature in 1786, just months before he traveled to Philadelphia to be a principal author of the Constitution.  The Virginia Statute states that no one can be compelled to attend or support any religious institution, or otherwise be restrained in their beliefs, and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities . . .”

The Constitution, framed according to “The Virginia Plan,” drafted primarily by Madison, contains no mention of God or Christianity.  In fact, the final text’s only mention of religion is in the proscription of “religious tests for public office,” found in Article 6.

In other words — Jefferson’s words— one’s religious identity, or lack thereof, has no bearing on one’s “civil capacities.”

If we thought about the meaning of Religious Freedom Day, we might start thinking about things like that — and not capitulate to the Christian Right’s effort to redefine religious freedom to include a license for business and institutional leaders (both government and civil) to impose their religious beliefs on employees and the public.

If we thought about things like that, then we might consider them in light of a host of initiatives in recent years, often advanced under the banner of religious freedom, but which, in fact, restrict the religious freedom of others.

We might consider, for example, the recent federal court decision in the case of General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper, which found that North Carolina’s ban on clergy performing marriage ceremonies without first obtaining a civil marriage license, was unconstitutional.

Since state law declared that same-sex couples could not get marriage licenses, this subjected clergy in the United Church of Christ, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among others, to potential prosecution for performing a religious ceremony.

As religious equality advances, so does equal rights for all. So you can see why the Christian Right might not want people—people like us—thinking like Jefferson. And that is why we must.

Religious Freedom Day was the brainchild of some of the town fathers and mothers of Richmond, Virginia, who have since created a museum dedicated to education about the Virginia Statute (PDF).

But we need more than a museum to breathe more life and liberty into the living Constitution.  Not much goes on around the country on Religious Freedom Day. There is no time like the present to seize this day.

The Christian Right Does Not Want You to Know About This Day

Jefferson Statue

In the heat of our political moment, we sometimes don’t see how our future connects deeply to our past. But the Christian Right does — and they do not like what they see.

The Christian Right has made religious freedom the ideological phalanx of its current campaigns in the culture wars. Religious freedom is now invoked as a way of seeking to derail access to reproductive health services as well as equality for LGBTQ people, most prominently regarding marriage equality.

But history provides little comfort for the theocratic visions of the Christian Right. And that is where our story begins.

For all of the shouting about religious liberty — from the landmark Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, to the passage of the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Mississippi, and more — there is barely any mention, let alone any observance, of the official national Religious Freedom Day, enacted by Congress in 1992 and recognized every January 16 by an annual presidential proclamation.

The day commemorates the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

Why is this seemingly obscure piece of Revolutionary-era legislation so vital? And why doesn’t the Christian Right want you to know anything about it?

The bill, authored by Thomas Jefferson and later pushed through the state legislature by then member of the House of Delegates, James Madison, is regarded as the root of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and it was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written.

It not only disestablished the Anglican Church as the official state church, but it provided that no one can be compelled to attend any religious institution or to underwrite it with taxes; that individuals are free to believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

As a practical matter, this meant that what we believe or don’t believe is not the concern of government and that we are all equal as citizens.

Following the dramatic passage of the Statute 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 principal author of the First Amendment, which passed in 1791.

Thomas Jefferson was well aware that many did not like the Statute, just as they did not like the Constitution and the First Amendment, both of which sought to expand the rights of citizens and deflect claims of churches seeking special consideration.

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.”

That is a powerful and clear statement. Jefferson, almost 200 years ago, refuted the contemporary claims of Christian Right leaders, many of whom not only insist that America was founded as a Christian nation, but that the framers really meant their particular interpretation of Christianity.

Jefferson further explained that the legislature had specifically 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.”

No wonder the Christian Right does not want us to remember the original Statute for Religious Freedom — it doesn’t fit their narrative of history! Nor does it justify their vision of the struggles of the political present, or the shining theocratic future they envision.

Religious Freedom Day is nothing but bad news for the likes of Religious Right leaders like Tony Perkins, who argue that Christians who favor marriage equality are not really Christians. They can believe that if they want, but it can make no difference in the eyes of the law. That is probably why on Religious Freedom Day 2014, Perkins made no mention of what Religious Freedom Day is really about — instead using the occasion to denounce president Obama’s approach to religious liberty abroad.

This barely commemorated day provides an opportunity for LGBTQ people, and progressives generally, to reclaim a philosophical, legal and constitutional legacy that the Christian Right is busy trying to redefine for their own purposes.

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