Nine states announce formation of religious freedom caucuses

WASHINGTON - The need to defend religious liberty, a key issue this year for the U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders, will now have a new venue for discussion and action in a handful of state legislatures.

Leaders from nine states - Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee - announced Oct . 9 that they would be part of a new group of state religious freedom caucuses to develop state policies to protect religious liberties.

The initiative was spearheaded by the American Religious Freedom Program, which is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Tim Schultz, the program's state legislative policy director, said in an Oct. 9 teleconference that there has been a "renewed interest in religious freedom" in the United States.

He said the discussion of religious freedom should extend beyond the courts to determine proper boundaries of religious freedom and give a place in each state where people of faith can voice their concerns.

State Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Fla., told teleconference participants that religious freedom caucuses "can work to ensure that the courts are not the only recourse" for those who feel their religious rights are being challenged.

He also noted that the issue of religious liberty is not a new one but "a movement that has been brewing for some time." In Florida, the issue is on the November ballot. Voters will be asked to decide on a constitutional amendment to prohibit discrimination against individuals and institutions on the basis of religious beliefs and on the issue of removing a long-standing ban on public funding "in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."

"It's extremely important that we all work together to share information and best practices in fighting against infringements on our freedoms," Precourt added.

Leaders of each state caucus will guide that state's agenda for developing specific protections for religious freedom. The American Religious Freedom Program will work with legislators, religious leaders, and other coalition members to help form additional caucuses and produce educational materials on religious freedom.

The program hopes to have religious freedom caucuses in all 50 state legislatures by the end of 2013.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970