Project Blitz and the Attack on the First Amendment

For Jews and other religious minorities in this country, the efforts to impose Christian religious beliefs on the general population pose a special concern.

June 30, 2018 22:33
3 minute read.
Project Blitz and the Attack on the First Amendment

International Fellowship of Christian and Jews (The Fellowship) Founder and President Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein speaks to More than 500 evangelical Christians and Jews gathered at Mar-a-Lago last night for the “Together in Fellowship” gala.. (photo credit: CAPEHART PHOTOGRAPHY)

When I was growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s, my public elementary school made participation in the annual Christmas play mandatory – much to the consternation of my mother, whose pleas to the principal to excuse me, one of a small group of Jewish kids, fell on deaf ears. A 1963 Supreme Court decision finding unconstitutional a Pennsylvania state law requiring students to participate in classroom exercises involving daily Bible verse reading apparently didn’t extend to Christmas pageants, at least not in my school.

As the years went by, that School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp ruling, along with similar Supreme Court decisions based on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, had their effect. Daily Bible readings, prayers and Christmas pageants in public school became a relic of the past in our increasingly multicultural, multi-religion society. This was not merely an evolution of social mores and values. It was recognition that not only do school-sponsored religious activities convey an unconstitutional message of government endorsement of religion but that schools have an outsized influence on the views of children. The Establishment Clause, a hallmark of our American democracy, protects the rights of minority religions – or those opposed to any religion – from the insidious effects of government-approved religion, not to mention oppression by a religious majority. In our current political environment, however, those protections are under attack.

Witness “Project Blitz,” a coordinated national legislative strategy launched by a coalition of evangelical Christian political groups to undermine religious protections in the states. A recent article on this campaign reveals the group’s ingenious strategy, set forth in a 116-page guide for state legislators published by the “Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.” The Foundation’s strategy includes furnishing state legislators with a package of 20 model bills to serve as a template for state-bystate legislation.

The bills are organized into three tiers, starting with the seemingly innocuous, including a bill requiring that state governments display the national motto, “In God We Trust,” in public buildings, public schools and license plates. That bill has been introduced in 25 states this year, and was just enacted in Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee this legislative session. The model legislation escalates from the “non-controversial” national motto bill to a second tier that includes bills expanding protections of student and teacher religious expression in public schools (introduced in 12 states this year) and allowing public school courses on the Bible (introduced in eight states this year).

In the most intrusive tier of bills in the Project Blitz model legislation package is one based on the 2016 Mississippi law that allows private businesses and government employees to discriminate against minorities, such as LGBT people, on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop would seem to support this approach, and may well embolden legislators to push for other “religious freedom” bills like this.

Our founding fathers understood the tendency of religious activists to impose their beliefs on others, usually in genuine service to their own belief systems, and banned such activity by prohibiting the establishment of any national religion and by erecting a firewall between church and state. Christian political groups have attempted a workaround, seeking to redefine religious freedom as the freedom to exercise their personal religious principles in ways that permit discrimination against others or to engage in other offensive practices. Again, the Supreme Court Masterpiece Cakeshop case is a notable example of this new strategy; Christian legal activists framed the case as an infringement of the right of a bakery owner to deny service to a gay couple in obedience to his own religious beliefs.

Our current president has tapped into the notion that Christian rights are under attack. For example, he generates enormous excitement by invoking the supposedly eroded “right” to say Merry Christmas, or the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

For Jews and other religious minorities in this country, the efforts to impose Christian religious beliefs on the general population pose a special concern.

The rise of Christian nationalism coincides with a major increase in antisemitism, Islamophobia and other bigotry. We may shrug off the reports that school districts are allowing prayer groups to proselytize in the classroom or on the football field, and we may turn a blind eye toward public funding of Jewish religious institutions in places like New York. But that is dangerous. We must protect the Establishment Clause and the church-state firewall in every instance, or else we should not be surprised when our children are once again compelled to perform government-prescribed prayer and other religious rituals in their schools.

Peter M. Gillon is a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

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