David Christensen, Vice President for Government Affairs with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., discusses some of the positive religious liberty developments occurring at the federal level.
Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. If you are a regular listener to the daily mainstream media, you probably have a pretty negative view of what is happening in our nation’s capital. Today, however, we are going to be talking with someone who is there and who has a firsthand view of the real story about many of the positive things that are taking place, especially when it comes to the critically important issue of religious liberty.
Our guest today is David Christensen, Vice President for Government Affairs with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.
David, welcome back to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: John, thanks so much for having me.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, It’s hard to know where to begin on this discussion because there are so many moving parts that are taking place, but let’s start with what many religious freedom advocates consider to be a major (hopeful) victory, and that is the recent confirmation of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. What exactly is this position all about and what can we reasonably expect from Governor Brownback when it comes to this new position?
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: We’re really excited about his confirmation to this position: The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Liberty. He’s at the State Department and what his job and role is is to work on promoting religious liberty overseas. So in 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act was passed and there was a position for kind of an at large—somebody who’s the head of religious liberty over at the State Department. But quite honestly—and it became very apparent during the last eight years—that this position was a lower level State Department official who did not even report to the Secretary of State. So, Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey, and others, pushed legislation two years ago, 2016, that passed, and President Obama signed into law, to elevate the position of Religious Liberty to an ambassador position who: would directly report to the Secretary of State; would have more authority; would have an actual office—this is all inside the beltway stuff—but; would have a lot more authority and criteria for promoting religious liberty at the international level. We think Governor Brownback is perfect for that. He helped as a senator to pass the 1998 law that President Clinton signed into law, and he also has worked on helping Christians in Darfur who were being persecuted in Sudan. He’s worked to help Baha’i minorities in Iran. He’s been an advocate of human rights and, obviously, religious liberty. What we’ve seen with the persecution of Christians, the beheadings, whether it’s in Africa, Nigeria, whether it’s in Iraq obviously, the Yazidis are being persecuted and others. Sam Brownback is somebody who is going to elevate this as a foreign policy goal. Sam Brownback made this point in his confirmation hearings: We have got to protect the religious liberties and the freedoms of others from oppression and from ISIS and from others, because it’s going to benefit not only the people—which is clearly important, their dignity— but it’s an important foreign policy goal and strategy for the United States. So to get back to promoting, I mean, we pushed so hard to get the State Department under Secretary Kerry to even declare what was happening as genocide. They were so resistant. We just need strong leadership and we think Governor Brownback’s the person for this job.
JOHN RUSTIN: That is exciting and certainly, this whole issue of religious freedom has gained additional prominence and really seems to be a much higher priority for this current administration. We, of course, have recently seen the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announce the establishment or formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within DHHS’ Office for Civil Rights. Tell us about this new division.
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: This new division is within the existing Office of Civil Rights, that takes claims of discrimination on healthcare matters, whether it’s HIPAA violations, whether it’s violations of other kinds of Civil Rights law in the context of healthcare. Just a quick aside, I worked for Congressman Dave Weldon back on the Hill. He was a Florida congressman, and in 2004, Congress passed legislation to add to conscience protections because we were seeing a trend where government agencies or states getting federal funds, or hostels getting federal funds, were discriminating against pro-life healthcare providers—nurses being forced to participate in abortions against their will. The State of California, since then, in the last few years, [has] mandated abortion insurance coverage, so that churches are losing their insurance coverage. Oregon, Illinois, there are other states. So, Obama rescinded President Bush’s regulations enforcing those conscience protections. And what Trump’s HHS did recently was to elevate the Office of Civil Rights within a Religious Freedom Division to enforce multiple—over 25—laws on the books protecting the conscience rights of pro-life healthcare providers and people who object to assisted suicide. And then, they actually purport a regulation that people were going to be sending our alerts saying, “Hey, you’ve got to file comments with the government saying this is good because the Left is going to oppose this.” So, we don’t think doctors, nurses, residents and federally funded residency programs should be forced to participate in abortion. This is a long history in American jurisprudence and constitutional law and morality of conscience rights. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did nothing to protect the conscience rights of so many Americans, and this whole new division and this new regulation is to now start actually enforcing those violations that have been ongoing for the last eight years.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s very helpful. Now David, this new division seems to have two focus areas: Conscience, which typically seeks to protect, as you’ve talked about, the moral and religious beliefs of health care providers like doctors and nurses; and also Religious Freedom, which has broader implications when it comes to health care, insurance, etc. What do you see as the scope of this new division? How broad might that get and what are some of the most important issues it is likely to address early on?
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: There’s no question that the Religious Liberty protection element is important. I mentioned, for instance, that California has mandated all insurance plans cover elective abortion, which means, if you are a religious health insurance company, you now have to provide abortion coverage. If you are a religious employer and you had insurance for your employees, you now have to cover elective abortion or drop your health care coverage. Of course, if you drop your health care coverage, you’re violating Obamacare’s employer mandate and can get fined. So, Pastor Jack Hibbs, some others in California, filed complaints over two years ago with the Obama Administration and got nowhere. They basically ignored the complaints and finally came back and said, “This isn’t a problem and you’re not protected anyway.” So this new division is going to protect that. And you say, “Well, the federal government can’t stop every act of discrimination at the state or local level.” But here, there’s a funding hook: HHS and the federal government funds California, Oregon and others, to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Under the bills that say, ‘You cannot, in a federally funded program, discriminate against somebody whose got pro-life concerns, whether it has to do with abortion, whether it has to do with assisted suicide.’ The last thing we want is pro-life doctors, nurses or hospitals or employers to suddenly say, “Oh, now in this federally funded program, I’m going to violate my conscience or my deeply held religious beliefs and go along with this.” That’s just entirely inappropriate, entirely unconstitutional. And so, this administration is elevating religious freedoms and conscience protections for pro-life on the assisted suicide issue to the same level of other civil rights laws that we all agree with. People shouldn’t be discriminated against on the basis of race or religion or age, for instance, or national origin. Now, we’re seeing parity between the way that the government is going to enforce those civil rights and conscience protections.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, let’s turn to the judicial branch for just a minute. Of course the [U.S.] Supreme Court recently declined to consider a couple of cases challenging a Mississippi state law aimed at protecting both religiously-motivated employees and organizations. Talk a little bit about Mississippi’s Religious Liberty Accommodations Act and what the Supreme Court’s refusal to take this case means.
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: We and Alliance Defending Freedom and some other groups really worked on a number of issues. We haven’t gotten very far at the federal level but in the states, they passed the Government Nondiscrimination Act and the lower courts struck it down as being discriminatory. The bill is really simple. It’s a nondiscrimination policy as it relates to a state punishment of people on the basis that they support marriage between a man and a woman. so that, you know, an organization does not have to violate their conscience or religious beliefs as it relates to their views of marriage. Or if there’s a school that has a code of conduct for students, for instance, on sexual behavior as it relates to what their view of marriage is, the federal government, excuse me the state government should not punish them. The good news is that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that law. And of course, the plaintiffs who are challenging it appealed to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court declined to consider it. So, the Mississippi law is on the books. It’s important to try to get those kinds of protections throughout. And one point of clarification, John, this has been demonized so inappropriately by the Left. This does not license anybody to do anything other than to follow their beliefs. It simply prevents discrimination by the government against them. So, we don’t think that the government should punish people because they happen to be pro-life. We don’t think the government should punish somebody because they happen to support marriage between a man and a woman. It does not affirmatively provide any new “right to discriminate” or anything like that on the part of people. We should respect each other, even when we strongly disagree, and there should be a live-and-let-live policy. But the government should not come in and punish organizations, employers, churches, because they disagree over the view of marriage. Even Kennedy, in the ruling in Obergefell, overturning the federal marriage laws/ state marriage laws, said, ‘Oh, people of faith should be able to disagree. There’s millions of Americans of goodwill who still believe marriage is between a man and a woman. We should agree to disagree.’ That’s exactly what this law did and we’re going to continue to support those kinds of efforts.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, there’s so much more we could talk about but we’re just about out of time. What do you think are the short-term and long-term outlooks for Americans who are concerned that our fundamental right to religious liberty has been quickly eroding? Do we have real cause for hope? Do we have continued cause for concern? As someone who works on this issue on the frontlines in our nation’s capital, what’s your perspective?
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: I do think that there is definitely reason for hope and I do think there’s reason for concern. I do think that the Left has gone almost apoplectic in its effort to try to use the heavy hand of government at the federal or the state or the local government to force people to violate their deeply-held religious beliefs. You know, when I’m talking to Hill staffers or congressmen, I’ll say, “Hey look, you may or may not want to live like an Amish person, but shouldn’t we all agree that they should be able to live in accordance with their deeply held beliefs? Why should the federal government come in and squash them?” There are exciting opportunities here and the President has—last year, he issued a religious liberty executive order. The Department of Justice then put out a brilliant memo of guidance on religious liberty. And we’re starting to see, with the DHHS example, starting to see some of these heavy-handed Obama policies and regulations rolled back. Americans, who care about religious liberty, cannot be silent. They cannot give up. They have got to weigh in with their members of Congress because, frankly, the Left is very loud. To encourage people: It does make a difference when you talk to your state legislator. It makes a difference when you talk to your congressman, your senator. You’ve got to weigh in. You’ve got to continue to stand firm and be public and live your faith. And I think, there’s real opportunity here. We’re seeing signs of hope. We’re seeing examples of religious liberty increasingly being protected. We just need to keep pushing forward.
JOHN RUSTIN: David, as we finish our discussion today, where can our listeners go to learn more about the great work that you and the Family Research Council do in our nation’s capital to protect religious liberty and to make sure that so many of these other important issues are heard by our federal lawmakers?
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: Definitely. Please visit our website, frc.org. We also—John as you said—we work with you and other state leaders, try to get support to you. It’s really important that folks get connected. So again: frc.org, and you can get a lot of information on a lot of these policies.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great. Well with that David Christensen, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for the incredible work that you and FRC do on behalf of so many families across our nation.
DAVID CHRISTENSEN: John, thank you so much. It’s good to be with you.
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