"There is a renewed interest in religious freedom in the country, and this growing attention is bringing together people of all religious faiths and political ideologies," Tim Schultz of the American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP) said during a teleconference Oct. 9. "Freedom of religion is a right that all lawmakers, and this includes state legislators, have a role in protecting and defending.
"This is not an issue just for the courts," Schultz noted.
With the assistance of a bipartisan group of more than 120 lawmakers -- 16 were present for the teleconference -- ARFP plans to inaugurate religious freedom caucuses in all 50 states by the end of 2013. The current states with caucuses are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The formation of these caucuses is based on two ideas, Schultz said: 1) Religious freedom is important to the majority of Americans from all faiths, and these individuals oppose "state-sponsored injury to religion" and 2) the free exercise of religion is a constitutional right that is foundational to all freedoms and must be protected by state lawmakers.
Schultz -- state policy director for the AFRP, which is an initiative of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center -- explained how the caucuses will function:
-- Even though these are the first state caucuses with a religious freedom agenda, they will work in a manner similar to other legislative caucuses.
-- Each caucus will consist of lawmakers who come together to discuss various public policy issues pertaining to freedom of religion both in their state and throughout the country.
-- There will be a multi-state information-sharing component to connect the caucuses across the country. This will help build legislative expertise beyond that of a single caucus in one state capital.
State Rep. Stephen Precourt of Florida said during the teleconference, "Religious freedom caucuses -- that is, legislators of all political and religious affiliations working together -- can work to help ensure the courts do not end up being the sole recourse for violation of religious freedom and, even better, to prevent the courts in the first place from being a means to push religious discrimination."
Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, which is affiliated with the Council for Secular Humanism, meanwhile expressed some skepticism about the effort in comments to Baptist Press.
"Freedom of conscience is a fundamental right, and any effort to strengthen that right should be welcome," Lindsay said. "Unfortunately, 'freedom of conscience' and 'religious liberty' are sometimes improperly invoked by those who seek to impose their religious views on others, directly or indirectly. Whether the American Religious Freedom Program will help strengthen the right to freedom of conscience or subvert this right largely depends on the understanding of religious liberty that will guide its activity."
Specific religious restrictions discussed in the teleconference were the removal of crosses from cemeteries in Tennessee and the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate.
In 2009, Tennessee passed its version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, stipulating that the state must have a compelling governmental interest and has chosen the least restrictive option before passing a law that may infringe on an individual's religious freedom. As new attacks on religious freedom appear, it is the state lawmakers' duty to take the lead in battling these grievances, Tennessee Rep. Brian Kelsey told Baptist Press.
"We would hope that there would be no need to form a religious freedom caucus, but unfortunately there have been attacks on religious freedom that have stepped up in recent years, and that is the reason we are forming this caucus at this time," Kelsey said.
In early January Tennessee's seven inaugural caucus members -- four Democrats and three Republicans -- will meet to discuss their goals for the upcoming session.
"My hope is that we would get to a point where we wouldn't have to fight these battles on a yearly basis," Kelsey said. "I believe that all Americans cherish our right to exercise religion freely and want to protect that right as much as possible."
Anne Reiner is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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