Washington D.C., Oct 10, 2012 / 12:02 am (CNA).- A group of more than 120 bipartisan state legislators have created caucuses in nine states to address threats to religious liberty and learn from the experiences of other lawmakers.
“These are the first state caucuses ever to focus exclusively on religious freedom,” said Tim Schulz, state legislative policy director at the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
“There’s a renewed interest in religious freedom in the country,” he explained, “and this growing attention is bringing together people of all religious faiths and political ideologies.”
The American Religious Freedom Program organized a national teleconference on Oct. 9 to announce the nation’s first state religious freedom caucuses, formed by legislators in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
The caucuses are designed to unite state lawmakers who share an interest in protecting religious liberty. They will facilitate discussion, cooperation and leadership as each group of legislators works to tailor particular laws to strengthen religious freedom amid the specific circumstances faced by their state.
Schulz explained that the caucuses center around an understanding that “the free exercise of religion is a constitutional right that, together with the other First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press, is foundational to all of our other freedoms.”
Therefore, protection of this right should not be left to the courts alone, he said, but lawmakers also share in this responsibility.
“Also, diverse state communities need a place at each state capital where they can bring their concerns and have total confidence that they will be respectfully heard,” he added, noting that this is particularly important for religious minorities, who are often underrepresented in elected bodies.
The American Religious Freedom Program will help to both produce specific educational materials for each state and form additional caucuses in the hope that all 50 state legislatures will include such caucuses by the end of 2013.
“As someone who’s been involved in my community and schools for years, I can tell you firsthand that a vast majority of Arizonans cherish America’s guarantee of religious freedom, and they want it protected,” said Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko.
She told of work in her state to stand up against the erosion of religious freedom by protecting professors from being denied tenure over their religious beliefs and defending the right of student religious clubs to receive fair treatment alongside nonreligious clubs.
Lesko was the author of a major Arizona religious freedom law that exempts religiously affiliated employers from the state’s contraception mandate, which had raised concerns similar to those voiced over the current federal contraception mandate.
Elements of Lesko’s conscience freedom legislation have now been enacted in other states. The newly-formed caucuses will provide an avenue for what Schultz described as “a significant multi-state information sharing element” that will help lawmakers “build legislative expertise” and learn from other states’ experiences in fighting similar threats to religious liberty.
Also speaking at the teleconference was Tennessee Rep. John J. DeBerry, Jr., who warned of “a militant assault against those things that we believe and people of faith.”
He explained that religious citizens did not ask for a fight, but were rather forced to defend their views against efforts “to remove our freedoms and to remove any symbol of the things that we believe from the public eye.”
DeBerry pointed to attempts to remove crosses from cemeteries where fallen military heroes have been laid to rest and cautioned that in a culture which views faith as being ignorant and narrow-minded, we cannot take for granted “our ability to speak what we believe.”
“I think that it is our responsibility as Americans, as Bible believing individuals, as people of faith, to make a stand for what we believe is true,” he said, adding that “for us to do anything less is for us to give up.”