“How many of you have reported on church-state issues? How many have reported on church-state issues in Texas?”
Journalists from across the U.S. and some from abroad nodded affirmatively as Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network, posed both questions at the Religion Newswriters Association’s pre-conference in Austin, Texas. She called her state a petri dish, consistently pushing the boundaries of what church-state separation means.
Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, defined religious freedom as the right to ask questions of ultimate significance and to live according to those answers. He said that despite the ubiquity of religious experience in the U.S. today, religious freedom is still all too uncommon.
Teetsel cited the “mainstreaming of alternative sexualities” as an issue at the front line of impending religious liberty conflicts. Elaborating on this point, he mentioned the case of a New Mexico photographer who was sued for refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony on religious grounds and the ongoing case to determine whether Hobby Lobby and other companies must provide birth control to employees under the federal health care law.
In a later session, the president of Hobby Lobby Steve Green said, “We didn’t pick the fight. We had no intentions of suing our own government…But as has been mentioned, because the mandate requires us in essence to become abortion providers, our conscience doesn’t allow us to do that. We had no other option, we saw, than to sue.”
Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience TV show, emphasized that debates on religious freedom should focus on church-state separation rather than on notions of offense. He believes the case of cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas holding up Biblical banners at football games is not a matter of free speech, as some have framed it, but rather a blatant breach of church-state separation.
Jeff Mateer, general counsel of Liberty Institute, is defending the Texas cheerleaders in an ongoing court case. He says the case “shows there is an effort to purge religion from our schools and public lives.”
Miller from the Texas Freedom Network brought the room back to a secular perspective. With only 10 minutes to speak, she skipped over birth control, LGBT rights and the cheerleader case to focus on the intersection of religion and curricula in public schools.
How teachers present sex, scripture, evolution and history all bring up questions of church-state separation in Texas and across the country. She says that a lack of guidance around how to teach these subjects is concerning and problematic. According to a Texas Freedom Network study she cited, only 3.6 percent of Texas school districts teach anything beyond abstinence-only sex education.
A room full of journalists meant a steady stream of probing questions and lively debate. Some choice quotes from Tweeting journos in the room: