The religious right in the US definitely has a plan. And they’ve conveniently written it out in public for all of us to see. It’s scary stuff, but its definitely a fight I think we can win. We just gotta get moving on it, like now.
This week we’ll hear from American Atheists’ Alison Gill on what Project Blitz is, why its a threat, and how we can fight it.
Find the Project Blitz playbook here
Check out blitzwatch.org to see how you can get involved to stop them
The Transcript for this episode is below:
Callie: Shouts out this week: Marcus for becoming a new patron and to freethinker two one five for a pledge increase on Patreon this week. Thank you dearly and I love you both!
My name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining.
A few times a year, an atheist organization will make headlines for bringing a challenge to a state or local law. Often they’re laws about things like an “in god we trust” sign at a school or courthouse, a cross on a memorial, a Ten Commandments statue at a city building and so on.
When it happens, inevitably there are criticisms that too much effort is being expended on something insignificant. Sure it sucks that the Ten Commandments are on a courthouse lawn, but we have finite resources. Is that really the place we want to send them? Is that where we want our lawyers and our money?
I’ll be the first to admit that I was kind of the annoying centrist on this issue. An In God We Trust sign on a building is just sort of a confirmation for me of what I already know. I live in a country that has less respect for me because I’m an atheist, and further because I’m queer and trans. I just kinda couldn’t get over my feeling that we had bigger problems to deal with. Obviously it’s a bigger problem in schools where there are children who are still learning and figuring out who they are, and are a mostly captive audience. But courthouses and government buildings? That was all kind of a meh for me. Then I learned about Project Blitz.
I have to admit that I don’t often pay a lot of attention to the talks at conventions I go to. I’m usually either preparing and rehearsing my own talk, or hanging out with my friends because I only ever get to see them 2-3 times a year. As you might remember, I emceed the American Atheist’s convention awhile back, and thus had to familiarize myself with the speakers and what their talks were going to be about. One of the speakers was Alison Gill
Alison: I am the vice president for legal and policy at American atheists. I manage our DC office which focuses on litigation and advocacy activities around the separation of religion and government and also preserving the civil rights of atheists and non-believers.
Callie: Her talk was about Project Blitz. At its core, Project Blitz is a coordinated effort by a coalition of right wing Christian groups to pass laws that favor their specific brand of Christianity, at the cost of the rest of us.
Alison: There had been an increase both last year, 2018, and the year before in certain types of bills that previous to that had been sort of rare. And especially bills around putting in God we trust in School classrooms. And also bills around religious exceptions and Foster Care and Adoption that allow placement agencies to discriminate. And so we at the time, you know, there had been several of these bills come up.
They don’t seem related on their face and we did not know they were related. But then Federik Clarkson’s reporting on Project Blitz sort of showed there was a policy guide created by sort of the Christian nationalist movement that united about 20 different types of model bills. And they were promoting it to lawmakers across the country. And that’s how we learned about Project Blitz.This policy guide was available free online. They weren’t even trying to like hide it. But just no one knew about it because it was fairly obscure. And they had sent it, I think, at the time to over 750 lawmakers in different states around the country.
It sort of is kind of an amazing document because it really shows how sophisticated the movement has become, the Christian Nationalist movement in recent years. They took a variety of sort of pre-existing, you know, bills that were present, that have been introduced and passed in some places before that and packaged them all together in this really neat sort of policy guide, that has not only the model bills which are sort of change and reconfigured how they would like. But also things like talking points counter arguments – the arguments that they know opponents like us will will bring, examples of places where they’ve passed these types of bills previously, relevant court cases everything, facts quote-unquote, because some of them are pretty non-factual but like things to use to sort of support their case.
And this whole package of materials was given to various lawmakers and state advocates. So it’s a really sophisticated document.
Callie: And who are the players Who’s involved in putting this thing together and disseminating it?
Alison: sure, what says right on the The Project’s website that its wall Builders, which is sort of a Christian Nationalist organization associated with David Barton.
If you know he is the sort of a revisionist historian, he’s pretty well known. And also the National Prayer caucus foundation. So the National Prayer caucus is like a a group of lawmakers model makers at the federal level in Congress that you know, they’ve been around a while, but I guess they’ve got more conservative over time.
I think most of the democratic members, or probably all of them have have left. But they established this nonprofit arm called the National Prayer caucus foundation. And that is one of the major proponents of this. And that also actually leads me to the second major component of Project Blitz besides the policy guide, is the prayer caucuses in different states. And they’ve been very diligent in setting up these prayer caucuses which sort of look like the national one at the federal level, except they’re based in state legislatures.
You know, “prayer caucus” on its face, sounds kind of innocuous. It doesn’t sound like something that’s Sinister. But they tried to bring in, use this sort of language to try to bring in both conservatives and liberals, both Republicans and Democrats into the prayer caucus, and talk about promoting faith and prayer.
And really it’s a cover to promote this project Blitz agenda and they start off with some of these more innocuous sounding bills to gain momentum, and work together the passed legislation and then they move on to some of the more religious exceptions that allow for discrimination.
So it’s a very sort of deceptive campaign that’s based around these two components.
Callie: So these folks have put together a playbook. The latest one’s official title is “Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America. It’s divided into 4 parts or “categories” as they call them.
Category 1: Legislation Regarding Our Country’s Religious Heritage
Category 2: Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom
Category 3: Religious Liberty Protection Legislation
Category 4: Talking Points to Counter Anti-Religious Freedom Legislation
Strap yourselves in folks. We’re about to dive straight into the religious right’s policy agenda. Before we get too deep here I do want to warn you this is some pretty scary stuff. The spoiler alert for the agenda here is that it ends with queer and trans folks at the furthest margins of society at best with little to no civil liberties of our own. If you’re not in the headspace for that sort of thing. That’s totally valid…
Callie: Category 1 are largely made of the kinds of bills I talked about at the very beginning. Bills that often seem to be more about Christian ego stroking and virtue signaling than anything else.
These are things like requirements to display In God we Trust in schools and government buildings, offering an “in god we trust” version of a car’s license plate, and requirements that religious involvement in US history be taught in schools.
Alison: Well they frame it as talking about America’s “religious Heritage.” And this is really the stuff meant to promote the Christian Nationalist mindset, which is that America was founded as a Christian Nation and continues to be a Christian Nation to this day. So it’s sort of a revisionist type of historical narrative. Because of course, America, many of the founders were not Christian. It was founded on the concept of religious freedom and the separation of religion and government.
But that’s not the vision that they’re promoting. So they try, through these bills, to introduce religious imagery and symbolism into Schools especially, so they can sort of influence young people and have them believe that you know, based on their agenda, that this is a Christian Nation and has been a Christian nation.
And the bills were seeing most commonly, really promote that mindset. And that’s the “In God We Trust bills” in schools for example, and also the Bible classes in schools, which are very prevalent this year as opposed to last year. There were much fewer of them.
So those are meant to bring, however possible, these religious messages into the schools. And you can think about what effect that has on young people and teachers to always in every classroom have a giant In God We Trust poster. And these things are massive. They’ve been creating and donating them.
But they’re if you could think about it, like a giant poster that says in big bold letters “in God we trust.” There’s no context just that’s all it says. And it must be on the school wall in every classroom. So if you are an atheist or non-believer or religious minority, you can see how that might affect you.
Callie: They put these kinds of bills and policies first specifically because of the lack of expected opposition. Many will dismiss some of these bills as annoyances at best. David Barton, the guy behind a lot of this has said that quote the bills in Category 1 are, “kinda like whack-a-mole for the other side. It’ll drive them crazy that they will have to divide their resources out in opposing this… they won’t know what to do with this and it’ll be great!”
Callie: Category 2 is about resolutions and proclamations that affirm the Judeo-Christian heritage of The United States. Specifically the playbook recommends recognizing things like proclamations declaring a Religious Freedom Day, a Christian Heritage week, a proclamation recognizing the importance of the Bible in history, and a proclamation, weirdly, officially recognizing Christmas Day, as if that’s not super redundant.
Knowing the players here is key. Remember the guy we said is the head of all this. His name is David Barton. This guy is not only a Christian Nationalist, but he’s also a revisionist historian. There’s obviously no doubt that for better or worse, Christianity played a huge part in this country’s history, but the stuff this guy promotes is on a different level. He has a book, for example, that argues that Christians are the only ones who were ever meant to hold public office. He doesn’t just argue that separation of church and state is a bad idea, he doesn’t seem to think there should be a difference between church and state.
Basically no one outside the Christian Right takes him seriously as a historian, and it should be noted that he has no credentials as such either. His degree is actually in Christian Education from Oral Roberts University.
Now, proclamations and resolutions are largely symbolic right. But the fact is, they generate attention. News outlets will cover them, podcasts and youtube videos will be made, politicians will give speeches, special interest groups will take note and coordinate. The Project Blitz playbook encourages resolutions and proclamations as teaching moments. They point out the proclamations and resolutions can be distributed to schools and teachers, churches and pastors, encouraging them to draw attention to these issues and educate the groups they hold power in.
More importantly, these resolutions and proclamations can be used to generate excitement and support around the specific legislation outlined in category 3. Which is where shit starts to get real scary.
Callie: Category 3 is the meat of Project Blitz. It’s the culmination of the previous two pushes. The idea being once we’ve normalized and cemented this specific brand of Christianity as the default and preferred status of all people in the country, we start actively working at using religious liberty as a cudgel to take away the rights of people we don’t like.
Category three is broken down into sort of three subcategories.
The first subcategory is using more resolutions to state public policy. So these aren’t laws, but statements of public policy. This can be important because these often determine where public money gets allocated to or taken away from. The playbook lays out sample resolutions. The resolutions end with these really bizarre and scary sounding sentences for example:
“NOW, THEREFORE, it is RESOLVED that the public policy of this state supports and encourages marriage
between one man and one woman and the desirability that intimate sexual relations only take place
between such couples.”
“NOW, THEREFORE, it is RESOLVED that the public policy of this state supports and encourages
maintenance of the birth gender of its citizens.”
“ NOW, THEREFORE, it is RESOLVED that the public policy of this state supports and encourages the
establishment and strengthening of intact biological families, the placement of children within family
structures where there is marriage between one man and one woman, and the placement of children in
safe and supportive non-institutional settings where they will receive the love and nurturing, in a stable
environment, that enables them to flourish and realize their potential to the maximum practical extent. “
And if you think that’s bad, you should read the research they cite in support of these policy positions. It’s literally a who’s who of right wing think tanks and activists with a very publicly stated intention of removing queer and trans folks from public life to whatever extent is possible.
3b, and 3c are where we actually start talking about legislation.
Let’s start with what’s called First Amendment Defense Act, also sometimes branded as the “marriage tolerance act”
Alison: The name is based on a bill that was introduced in Congress that has never passed: the First Amendment Defense Act. And there’s so many different variations of this type of bill. Basically, what it does, is it establishes a few particular beliefs that are selected by the lawmakers. Let’s say the belief that marriage is only between two people of the opposite sex, or that people must maintain their birth gender. Those are, those are two that are very common. Or that only heterosexual intimacy is, within the context of marriage, is appropriate. Those are all three things I’ve seen before. And then it basically sets up non-discrimination protections for anyone that believes these these specific things.
So the government cannot deny contracts, it can’t deny benefits, it can’t take any actions against people that believe those things because of that belief. It can’t deny contracts, which is important. And that includes people that work for the government or you know, people that might take grants or be contractors or just, be subject to the laws of that governmental body.
So it would create these broad religious exceptions that just protect conservative issues. So it’s especially dangerous. And there has been I think one FADA, possibly more, that passed at the state level in Mississippi. And I think it’s you know, it’s sort of difficult to challenge, its not been overturned.
I would argue that these are, on their face violations of The Establishment Clause, because they’re enshrining one specific set of religious beliefs into the law for special protection. The difficulty is establishing standing to challenge these these types of bills if they pass.
So for example in Mississippi, there was a case brought but it was thrown out on standing grounds. And standing is kind of a complex legal concept that means “does this plaintiff have the ability to go to court to challenge this issue?” Is it something that directly affects them? is it something that they’re the best person to sort of fight and push back against? And can the court provide a meaningful remedy?
So those are some of the factors that go into standing. And if a plaintiff is denied standing by a court, then they don’t even get to go in the courthouse doors in the first place. They don’t get to make their case. They don’t get to, sort of, do discovery.They’re sort of barred from, from really moving forward with the case, you know, all together.
So it’s very significant and challenging if you can’t get standing to challenge something. So the problem is, if you have like, a FADA law like passed in Mississippi… Well Mississippi doesn’t have any non-discrimination laws, right, that protect LGBT people explicitly.
So if there’s these religious carve-outs, it’s hard to show where the impact is because a person has no expectation of protection. So if it specifically says you can discriminate for this belief. I mean they have no protections in the first place. So, how do you, how do you show you’re damaged by that law?
Callie: that’s insidious!
Alison: And yeah, no it is it is challenging and I part of it was, they were trying to challenge it on its face, saying it’s inherently unconstitutional which is also challenging based on various rulings by the Supreme Court over the years. They’ve been really working to narrow standing, especially the conservative side, over years. so it’s, it can be fairly difficult to get standing in federal courts depending on the issue.
We also have so called RFRA laws.
Alison: A religious freedom restoration act or RFRA is basically a state level version of a federal Bill, a federal law called the religious freedom restoration act that was passed in the early 90s. The original bill was passed in response to a Supreme Court case called Employment Division v Smith.
That basically established that if you have general laws that do not specifically disfavor a religion, that are generally applicable to everyone, then just because you have a religious.. You know, they burden a religious concern or expression, that you don’t, the free exercise clause of the Constitution does not require that you be exempt from that neutral general law and employment law is a good example. Employment Division V. Smith was around was run usage of peyote and the consequences of using peyote and… basically, for a for minority religion.
But putting that aside discrimination laws are another good example. They apply to everybody. they do not specifically disfavor religion. So they’re generally applicable neutral laws.
And so basically RFRAs are especially concerning because the other side has this goal of using these types of bills to carve religious exemptions broadly into the law for issues that burden their, you know, their religious beliefs and expression.
So what the bill does is it sort of resets the level, the balancing test, between these neutral laws and religious expression. So that basically lawmakers or the law cannot burden religious expression unless it has, it meets the strictest possible test. It has to be a compelling government interest, something that’s really important for the government to do, and it has to be the least restrictive means of accomplishing that interest. And that can be very challenging depending on the issue.
Now, what the dream of these opposition groups, conservative groups is to use RFRA to undermine non-discrimination laws. I mean, that’s the, that’s one of the major goals. And they’ve been fighting, you know court cases to try to make that happen and push that forward they have not yet succeeded fortunately.
There’s been a couple of cases that have gotten close, but they’ve been overturned. Like for example, there was one in… it’s called Harris Funeral Homes that was in the sixth circuit that the sixth circuit overturned that had to do with RFRA. But regardless they, they have not, there’s not been ruled that RFRA allows non discrimination laws to be overturned if they burden religion. But that’s something that they’re working towards.
Now most of these bills passed in the 90s. And the original intent of RFRA was basically, you know, it had it had support from a lot of more left-leaning people. Because the idea was to support religious minorities. The case I talked about previously Employment Division V. Smith was a case about you know, a Native American religious practice.
And so there was concern when the Supreme Court said that that was not protected because it might have an impact on other religious minorities. So groups like the ACLU and others sort of supported RFRA along with more conservative groups. Not realizing of course that it would be misused by the majority religions to carve these broad religious exceptions to neutral laws.
Callie: The rest of the playbook contains talking points and focus recommendations for lawmakers in support of this agenda, and it’s a pretty scary read. Know your enemy though, right? If you’re up for it, I’d encourage you to read the whole thing. You’ll find a link to the playbook in its entirety in the show notes for this episode and at queersplaining.com/projectblitz.
But that’s not the end of this. This shit is scary, and the forces arrayed against us are powerful, well funded, and driven by the special kind of fervor that comes with believing they’re fulfilling the highest of purpose in God’s plan. But there are fights happening.
Alison: there’s been about 75 bills this year as well. And the rate of Passage is much much decreased. There’s only been about two or three “In God we trust” bills that have passed. And there’s been a few Bible class bills that have passed. But through strong advocacy, we’ve been able to change them or ensure that the ones that passed were not mandatory for school districts. That is they didn’t say a school districts *must* offer Bible classes. They were permissive for school districts saying, you know, school districts may offer Bible classes
And when I say Bible classes, I don’t just mean like a Sunday school class, at least not constitutionally. The Constitution requires that they be for a secular purpose. So that basically they have to be about the historic origin, The literature, literary purpose of the Bible or literary techniques used the and other sorts of aspects. So they should not be teaching it as a religious text, but rather its other aspects, if they are to be constitutional.
Callie: How are you feeling about the fight? Are you are you optimistic? Are you, how exhausted are you? Like, how do you feel about the potential of ending up on the right side of these things?
Alison: Well, I won’t lie the State Legislative sessions, especially, are fairly exhausting. It starts in January and through the end of June, you know, that’s when all the states are in session. So they’re all actively passing laws. And that is the busiest time of the year because, you know, we’re looking at… I think we’re tracking 425 or so state bills across the country. So there’s just a lot a lot going on to keep track of and you know, and submit testimony, or go testify or get local activists involved or you know, put out action alerts for. There’s tons of things that we we need to do. So that is that is exhausting and I am looking forward to when some of the more problematic States close, that’ll be fantastic.
Arkansas closed recently which I gave a little cheer for and I think Missouri closes next year, sorry, next week, which is also great. But at the same time, you know, I think this work is fantastic. I really like working with local advocates. It really energizes me to be able to coordinate with them and really empower them to engage these issues.
I think it’s fantastic the amount of work and seeing people get engaged and helping give them the tools to do so. And I say this sometimes, when I am asked about this exact thing. You know, if I wasn’t optimistic I could not do this job. How do you fight every day, and be a strong Advocate if you don’t believe that you will be ultimately successful? And I don’t know the answer, maybe other people can do that, but I can’t. So I feel like it’s essential to be optimistic and you know, I have to point the project Blitz.
I mean last year they passed ten bills and we were unable to make any traction to stop them. This year, they’ve only passed what, I said, two or three “in God we trust” bills. And we’ve managed to delay or stop their bills and almost every other area, which is just fantastic success. We brought so much awareness and you know action in different states.
There are states like let’s take Nebraska for example. I really thought Nebraska if an “In God We Trust” bill got passed there, it would pass without a problem. But because of the really great work of local groups, including the Nebraska secular democrats, for example, and others, and we got engaged as well. You know stopping that bill was was really fantastic and it’s really showed a lot of terrific local organizing.
So, I do believe it’s possible to push back against these bills and I think we’re increasingly doing a good job of it.
Callie: Thank you Alison and the team at American Atheists who are helping lead this work. If you want to learn more and get involved, again, check out blitzwatch.org and sign up for their alerts. Give money and time where you can, and keep speaking out among whatever spheres of influence you have. As tough as it is, I agree with Alison that these are fights we can win. So let’s keep at it, friends.
If you want to support this work, you can head over to patreon.com/queersplaining and consider a per episode donation to support the show. You can get the show a day early, get access to a bunch of audio journals, get some FaceTime on google hangouts, and even a picture and postcard. So check it out. I just posted a pretty wholesome story there about the last roller derby game I played. Should make you smile.
Before I go I want you to know that if you’re lost, you’re hurting, you’re scared – if you feel like no one cares and no one understands, you need to know there’s a community out here that loves you, cares for you, knows that you’re capable of amazing things and that you are worthy of love. If you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to reach out. Until next time friends, my name is Callie Wright, and this is Queersplaining