Are there really 139 religious freedom bills out there? Deseret News offers an ambitious round-up

With religious freedom in the news these days (from cake bakers in Colorado to imprisoned Christians in North Korea), it’s only right to call attention to a mammoth project the Deseret News just kicked off.

Calling it “the first in an ongoing series of in-depth stories and analyses dissecting and understanding religious liberty in America and the place of faith in the public square,” the newspaper -- owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- offered readers the journalistic equivalent of an Excel sheet of religious liberty lawsuits and legislative efforts in response.

It lists 139 bills in six categories: Adoption, college campuses, service refusals, LGBT rights, health care and miscellaneous. The piece begins:

The turf war over the place of faith in the public square is accelerating, and the stakes are rising like never before. Today, nearly every strata of society is affected, from kids in foster care outside Detroit, to college freshmen in Arizona, to florists and cake shop owners in America's heartland. 

On one side are believers who say their faith communities are threatened by an encroaching secular and godless movement seeking to silence and shun them. On the other side are LGBT and women's rights activists who say Americans are being denied basic human rights and enduring ongoing discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.
Many others, including long-time religious liberty advocates, both gay and straight, are alarmed by the direction of today's religious freedom debates, arguing that this value is meant to unify, not tear people apart. 

What’s interesting is that reporter Kelsey Dallas found 139 bills debated in one year.

The latest battlefield affects kids in need of new homes. State lawmakers are deciding whether faith-based adoption or foster care agencies should be allowed to receive government funding if, for religious reasons, they won't serve same-sex couples.

As for campus free speech, the issue isn’t religious per se, but some bills include prohibitions against treating religious organizations different than other groups or penalizing their wish to appoint leaders who hold certain religious beliefs. Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling wrote about that situation here. That issue got the most listings (29) of pending, failed or successful bills on the state level.

The service refusal category listed some bills, but it was clear that this year, at least, state legislatures were awaiting the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, which came out June 4. The LGBT rights category had 21 bills. The health category had 22. The miscellaneous category had 12.

The best part of the piece was the wrap-up at the end.

This year's state-level, religion-related bills -- and the battles they created -- don't bode well for the future of religious freedom law, according to policy experts. Most 2018 bills were one-sided, meaning that measures offered protections for one group of citizens without worrying about what to do when those protections harm others…
Religious freedom advocates in state legislatures know that broad bills protecting people of faith are unpopular. So they've turned their attention to smaller, more palatable issues, like the threat to faith-based adoption agencies, (Fretwell Wilson, director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois College of Law) said.

"We're seeing stand-alone adoption protections partly because it's one of the most sympathetic situations. We want to keep religious people in the marketplace," she said.

But during their debut year, many bills seeking to protect faith-based adoption agencies that won't serve LGBT couples for religious reasons met the same fate as other religious freedom measures. They failed to earn support from Democrats and were called discriminatory.

"We're seeing the leading edge of the same phenomenon that doomed (broader bills.) We're seeing corporate actors like Google come in and try to weigh in on these issues," Wilson said.

The list of 139 bills was impressive, but I would have liked to have seen some trends. Which states had the most proposed bills? Which states weren’t trying to pass any bills in any direction?

Was there a section of the country where these bills are concentrated? I saw a lot of the same states: Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Florida, Louisiana and West Virginia, but none in Oregon, New Mexico, Connecticut, or Utah, for that matter.

Were there more of them in red-state or blue-state America? And why did the piece quote more from legal firms on the left (ACLU, Americans United) but not from Liberty Counsel or the Alliance Defending Freedom on the right? (Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center kind of fits in the latter category but next time, try to talk with some firms that are out there litigating these cases).

That said, the piece –- and hopefully the reporting that is to follow -– will give a broad picture of what’s out there on the religious freedom legal chessboard across the nation. Too much reporting has missed the forest for the trees. This one does help journalists and readers see the whole forest and the mountains that lie beyond.

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