.- Advocates of religious liberty have announced plans to launch religious freedom caucuses in all 50 state legislatures in order to fight against the erosion of religious liberty at the local level.
The caucuses will be “a focal point for those who are working on religious freedom in the states to direct and generate their efforts,” said Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Working alongside a wide variety of faith communities and other groups, the American Religious Freedom Program is helping form and support the caucuses, which will allow state legislators to share information and connect with religious and public policy organizations as they focus on threats to religious liberty.
The caucus initiative was announced at the 2012 National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C. on May 24.
Concerns over religious freedom have escalated in recent months, reaching a peak with the Obama administration’s federal mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences.
The mandate has been widely criticized as an attack on religious liberty. Catholic bishops from every diocese in the U.S. have spoken out against it, warning that it could force Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies to close their doors.
Organizers of the state caucus initiative said that many threats to religious freedom begin or are found at the state level.
These attacks include attempts to require individuals to perform health care procedures that violate their beliefs, censure of policy arguments that incorporate religious beliefs, and efforts to weaken religious groups’ ability to choose their own leaders.
Concerns have also been voiced over the threat to religious freedom posed by a redefinition of marriage so that it includes homosexual couples. In states that have legalized “gay marriage,” lawsuits have already been filed against those who object to cooperating with them, threatening the conscience rights of adoption agencies, church halls and photographers, as well as other individuals and organizations.
Walsh described the developing caucuses as “a place for religious freedom expertise to reside.”
He explained that the creation process has already begun in a dozen states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah.
Walsh expects these caucuses to be up and running soon. He said that a total of about 25 caucuses are anticipated by the end of this year, and nearly every state is expected to have a caucus by the end of 2013.
The effort has drawn praise from a diverse group of religious leaders, many of whom will be helping create and support the caucuses.
“Since the founding of our Nation, we have never before witnessed threats of this magnitude from all levels of government,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ religious freedom committee. “Citizens who care about this fundamental American right must take action to protect it.”
“Blessed by two centuries of First Amendment protections in the United States, Jews must speak up when the liberties of conscience afforded their fellow Americans are being threatened,” added Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
“The Religious Freedom Caucuses will be a central tool in addressing these threats to religious rights before the courts are left as the only recourse,” said Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Walsh explained that the effort to build caucuses has received strong support at the state level.
This is not “a partisan issue,” but “an American issue,” he said. “Religious freedom is at the core of what it means to be American.”