The Christian and business Right has been steadily building political, policy and legislative capacity in the states since the 1980s. Among the best-known elements of this multifaceted, long term project are the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the State Policy Network and the Family Policy Alliance (the latter is currently affiliated with Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and Alliance Defending Freedom.)
Since 2016, a Christian Right state legislative campaign called Project Blitz has become part of this infrastructure. The stated purpose of Project Blitz is: “To protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.” But its more explicitly Dominionist agenda becomes clear in the manual where organizers frame model resolutions on heterosexual marriage, gender, and adoption as intended to advance “biblical values.”
The bills are seemingly unrelated and range widely in content—from requiring public schools to display the national motto, “In God We Trust” (IGWT); to resolutions that highlight religious themes (such as a distorted commemoration of Religious Freedom Day) to legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people via conscience clauses for health professionals and institutions, to religious exemptions regarding women’s reproductive health via a variation on the infamous First Amendment Defense Act. The bills are intended as a long term strategy, moving from the introduction of the less controversial bills to the more severely discriminatory over time. They also seek to move in increments. For example, a bill that would allow IGWT displays in public schools passed in Kentucky in 2018. But in 2019, the legislation was amended to require them.
In order to move its legislative agenda, Project Blitz has organized about three dozen state legislative “Prayer Caucuses,” modeled on the informal Congressional Prayer Caucus, (which comprises about a hundred sitting U.S. Senators and Representatives). Some prayer caucuses are fairly public and are not afraid to name their members. Others are more discreet. Sometimes, or example, while publicly stating that a Prayer Caucus has no agenda, members sponsor legislation and resolutions drawn all or in part on the Project Blitz model bills. (To keep up, see the Blitz Watch legislation tracker.)
In 2018, more than 70 bills were introduced that were based on, or were similar in intent to, the model bills. Bills allowing or requiring the display of the national motto, In God We Trust in public schools and other buildings passed in five states.
The manual grew from 116 to 148 pages between 2018 and 2019, partly because of the addition of new model bill, the “National Motto License Plate Act” which would allow citizens to opt for special license plates emblazoned with In God We Trust — what the playbook calls “moving billboards.” Most of the growth was due to the addition of a new section titled “Talking Points to Counter Anti-Religious Freedom Legislation.” This section insists that there cannot be inherent civil rights regarding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” because the terms are said to be too vague and there is too much disagreement over their meaning. It also provides arguments against bans on “conversion therapy” and against repeal of state RFRAs.
As of April 2019, Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports about half of the 56 such bills introduced so far have been IGWT or bills that would allow or require schools to offer classes in “Biblical Literacy.” IGWT tills have passed in Arkansas, Kentucky and South Dakota.
Alison Gill, Vice President of Legal and Public Policy at American Atheists said, “They start with the early phases with what are generally considered harmless or easy to pass low-hanging fruit,” Gill said, “and basically build momentum to pass more destructive ‘religious-exceptions’ bills that limit equality and freedom.”
“For the most part, these are not directly attacking equality or LGBT people, but instead working to build momentum, establish Christian nationalist narratives,” Gill explained. “For example, the display of the national motto in schools, or teaching the religious nature of the U.S. founding, establishing this Christian nationalist narrative. The [Project Blitz] book would classify this as low hanging fruit in order to basically gain early victories, and establish momentum.”
The Texas state senate recently passed a bill, rooted in model language from Project Blitz, according to legislative analysts as the Texas Freedom Network, that appears to be an escalation. The bill, which is expected to pass the House and be signed by the Governor, would allow any professional licensed by a state agency to discriminate against LGBTQ people, based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” In the absence of state and federal anti-discrimination protections, there are potentially far-reaching implications in numerous professions from health care, education, and child welfare to real estate and air conditioning repair.
So far in 2019, according to Americans United, IGWT and Bible literacy bills have been the most popular. Of the fifteen, IGWT bills introduced three, so far, have passed, in Arkansas, Kentucky, and South Dakota. Of the thirteen Bible course bills, none have become law (the North Dakota bill was voted down overwhelmingly), but bills are moving in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Missouri. There are also bills that would allow publicly funded foster care agencies to discriminate being considered in Tennessee which is apparently based on the Project Blitz model, and in Arkansas which apparently is not.
As ominous as the Dominionist vision and political activities of Project Blitz may be, a remarkably wide swath of the political community has been roused into awareness and action.
The original exposure of Project Blitz (by me, writing at Religion Dispatches/Rewire) and its underlying annual strategy manual catalyzed widespread media interest – from Salon to The Guardian and The New York Times. It has also generated new activist alliances and conversations among religious, civil rights and secular organizations seeking fresh approaches to the politics of the Christian Right. Among these is a work in progress called Blitz Watch, a project of a number of national organizations (including PRA, Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Interfaith Alliance, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) that seeks to provide educational resources and news about Project Blitz and to track its legislative initiatives. Another such effort was a webinar hosted by the PFLAG Online Academy, featuring Elizabeth Platt of Columbia Law School, Alison Gill of American Atheists, and me. The webinar has proved to be transformational in the wider discussion of the meaning of religious freedom, as such was the subject of a major essay at Salon.
What’s more, editorial writers at a major newspaper in South Dakota are deeply concerned about the passage of the Project Blitz generated IGWT bill among other governmental acts that appear “to formalize Christianity as the state’s official religion.”
Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School said, “If we know anything about the First Amendment, and about religious liberty law, it’s that the government should not single out certain theological views for special protection, especially at the expense of other peoples who don’t share those views. So at my project, we have tried to be careful in reframing the way we talk about religious exemption to make sure we are clear that exemptions that advance conservative religious beliefs are not just bad for secular people and are not just bad for LGBT people or for women. They’re actually really harmful to religious liberty and religious plurality.”
Indeed, increasingly opponents are coming to understand that the religious exemption bills proposed by Project Blitz, and the trend toward ever more and wider religious exemptions from civil rights and labor laws advocated by the Catholic and evangelical elements of the Christian Right, and the Trump administration, are attacks on religious freedom itself.