American flag waving in blue sky

Written by Don Byrd

On Tuesday, voters in a couple of states decided on ballot measures that directly or indirectly impact state law regarding religious liberty. Nationally, voters made a pretty big decision as well. Below is a recap and some thoughts.

Oklahoma voters rejected SQ 790, a short-sighted measure that would have removed a key religious liberty protection from the state’s constitution. The Baptist Joint Committee urged Oklahomans to vote no and fortunately, by a vote of 57%-43%, a majority there agreed. Allowing taxpayer funds to promote religion is no favor to religion. Government funding of religion can lead to improper entanglements, the appearance of an official state endorsement of religion, and it undermines the act of free conscience at the heart of personal faith. The Oklahoma Constitution wisely bars such funding as a means of protecting religious liberty for all.

Missouri voters likewise rejected Amendment 3, which was not directly about religious liberty but was an effort to increase cigarette taxes to fund education. But many religious liberty advocates noted that the measure included language that explicitly exempted those funds from state law similar to Oklahoma’s barring taxpayer funds from aiding religion. Amendment 3 would have allowed revenue raised from the cigarette taxes to fund religious education as an end-run around state law which prohibits it. The measure was defeated by a vote of 59%-41%.

However, like most of you I’m sure, my focus Tuesday (into Wednesday morning) was on the presidential election, which has resulted in President-Elect Donald Trump. To be sure, this presidential election was not a referendum on religious liberty or the separation of church and state. Somewhat to my surprise, it was rarely mentioned in any of the debates. At the same time, there is reason to be concerned about, and our attention carefully attuned to, the feelings and experiences of Americans of minority faiths in the wake of his election.

That is because at times Mr. Trump’s campaign offered outrageous and appalling proposals that would directly impact religious liberty, including: the rewriting of our immigration policies to prevent Muslim immigrants from entering the United States, and the surveillance of mosques or even the registration of Muslim-Americans as an extension of Homeland Security measures. Mr. Trump has also seemed to place blame for individual acts of terrorism on an entire religion. Scapegoating like that implies that our religious diversity is a mortal threat to our nation, rather than what it truly reflects: our deep national commitment to freedom of conscience.

For many Americans, some elements of his campaign, ” like his call for our country to be “one people under one God,” sound vaguely like a call to return America to a time when members of minority faiths were more openly excluded, outcast, and faced discrimination with impunity. They are frightened, and perhaps rightly so. Already, there have been reports of post-election violence and intimidation aimed at our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters. School administrators are speaking out this week after having to comfort worried school children, who newly fear their difference has made them a target for harassment, or worse.

As always, we who defend religious liberty for all must be vigilant in speaking out against religious division, discrimination, harassment and bullying. We who believe that the separation of church and state is good for both must advocate tirelessly against laws and regulations that single out or treat differently individuals solely based on their religious beliefs. And we who believe that soul freedom is central to our faith, who believe that an authentic relationship with God requires that our religion must in all ways be voluntary, we must stand arm in arm with our brothers and sisters of all faiths and those of no faith. We must defend the right of all Americans to exercise their beliefs freely and without fear, as if our own religious freedom depends upon it. Because it does.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has and will continue to be that voice from the Capital.  As this new White House administration prepares to take shape, I am as proud as ever to stand with them. For more, see the BJC’s Religious Liberty For ALL page.

If you are similarly grateful that there is a religious organization advocating for the separation of church and state, and religious liberty for all, I invite you to join me in that commitment.