States map 2015 for blog


By BJC Blogger Don Byrd

The end of spring brought a flurry of activity in state legislatures across the country, raising questions about the proper relationship between religion and government. As BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman explained in the last issue of Report From the Capital, states are most prominently wrestling with the question of religious exemptions based on beliefs regarding marriage.

Those bills, and others relating to religion, continue to wind their way through the legislative process. Here is a sampling of recent state legislation.

A proposed constitutional amendment that passed the Missouri Senate in March failed in a House committee on a 6-6 vote. The proposal would have allowed voters to decide in November whether to shield some businesses, religious organizations and individuals from penalty for actions taken in accordance with their religious beliefs about same-sex marriage.

The amendment would have protected organizations that refused to provide adoption services to same-sex couples and businesses that declined to provide services related to same-sex wedding ceremonies.

The measure also purported to protect clergy and houses of worship that refuse to preside over or host same-sex marriage ceremonies, but – as the BJC often points out – the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already provides robust protection that would prohibit the government from forcing ministers or churches to participate in weddings they object to on religious grounds.

Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill that would have named the Holy Bible as the official state book. The legislature passed the measure overwhelmingly, but the state attorney general’s opinion that the law would be unconstitutional plus Gov. Haslam’s own concern that such an official declaration “trivializes” the sacred text apparently led him to reject the bill. The BJC’s Jennifer Hawks outlined those same two concerns last year when this conversation first surfaced.

Meanwhile, Gov. Haslam did sign into law a controversial bill that would allow counselors and therapists to refuse to provide services to clients if it would violate their “sincerely held principles,” including religious beliefs. The legislation has generated substantial backlash, including from many Christian counselors who argue that such a refusal violates both professional and religious standards.

In accordance with a bill the legislature passed in April, voters in Oklahoma will decide whether to remove from the state constitution a key provision protecting the separation of church and state. Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution – like similar provisions in many state constitutions – prohibits the state from using government funds or property for religious or sectarian purposes.

Last year, a court ruled that the state constitution prohibits a Ten Commandments monument from being displayed on the grounds of the state Capitol. Now, advocates of the monument are promoting the repeal of Article 2, Section 5, with the hope that removing that provision from the law will allow the return of the monument.

But, that is not necessarily the case: The U.S. Constitution still protects against unlawful government displays. Many courts have found such monuments violate the First Amendment’s ban on the establishment of religion. The referendum will be included on the November ballot.

The Pennsylvania House approved a measure on a 179-20 vote that would encourage school districts across the state to add the motto “In God We Trust” to public school buildings. House Bill 1640 does not require schools to display the motto, but declares the importance of such displays and notes that courts have found the motto in other contexts to be constitutional. In the post-9/11 surge of patriotism, many states enacted similar legislation. Some required public schools to display the motto while others explicitly allowed it or stated that its display could not be prohibited. The bill is headed to the state Senate for consideration.

As always, check the BJC blog for daily coverage and perspective on state legislation and other news related to the intersection of church and state. Follow me on Twitter (@BJCBlog) for headlines and commentary.

From the May 2016 edition of Report from the Capital. Click here to view the issue as a PDF document.