Can the election of a single candidate change the course of religious freedom in a state?
Recent history says “yes.”
One of the most important lessons learned over the last couple election cycles is that significant changes, for good or ill, can happen overnight because of a single election.
Such is the volatility of some of today’s issues. We live in a divided culture, where issues like marriage, abortion and religious freedom cause vigorous public debates, which reflect in our politics. The lessons of recent history – especially concerning religious freedom – highlight the need for Christians to participate in the political process to preserve our rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion.
To illustrate, compare the differing experiences in two states, Louisiana and Kentucky, in the November 2015 elections for governor, and the impact those elections had on religious freedom in each state.
In 2015, Governor Bobby Jindal was finishing the last year of his second term in office, and by law was prohibited from running for a third term. Gov. Jindal was a strong supporter of religious freedom and took pains to undergird that freedom at every opportunity. In the early months of 2015, the country was breathlessly anticipating a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, which ultimately came down in June of that year. Several federal courts around the country had already struck down the traditional definition of marriage. Gov. Jindal was concerned, along with millions of Americans, that if same-sex marriage was mandated by the Supreme Court, the religious freedoms of Christians and others who believe in one man, one woman marriage could suffer from the potential overreach of government enforcement of the new marriage definition
So Gov. Jindal issued an Executive Order (EO) impacting the government agencies reporting to him, known as “The Marriage and Conscience Order.” This EO listed ways that businesses or individuals would be protected from harassment or punishment by the state for actions based on religious beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman. By that time there were several instances from other states of government prosecutions of, or threats against, Christian-owned businesses, including bakeries, florists, and wedding venues, and the governor did his best to prevent anything similar from happening during the remainder of his term. However, an EO is not permanent, as compared to a law passed by the state legislature. It contained an expiration date. Plus, it could be rescinded by the incoming governor.
In November, John Bel Edwards was elected as the next Governor, and assumed office on January 11, 2016. His views on religious freedom were quite different from Gov. Jindal’s. On April 13, Gov. Edwards not only rescinded Gov. Jindal’s EO, but he issued his own EO establishing sexual orientation and gender identity (“SOGI”) as protected classes in government employment. These types of SOGI laws are problematic and pose a direct threat to religious freedom under the guise of “non-discrimination.”
Edwards’ election caused a major setback for religious freedom in Louisiana. It may be years until another election can set things right.
Things turned out quite differently, however, in Kentucky‘s election for governor.
In 2015 Kentucky was at the forefront of the cultural clash over the definition of marriage. A federal district court in 2014 ruled that the state must recognize same-sex marriage. A few months later, a federal appeals court reversed that decision. The U.S. Supreme Court accepted that case and three others to review, and in June 2015 issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, ruling that same-sex marriage was a constitutionally guaranteed right.
But the Supreme Court decision also created a religious freedom challenge for certain Kentuckians. The Rowan County clerk, Kim Davis, refused to sign her name to marriage licenses requested by same-sex couples because she felt to do so would violate her faith and her conscience as a Christian. She was quickly sued by several same-sex couples with help from the ACLU, and a federal judge eventually incarcerated her for a 5-day period for contempt of court for refusing to obey his order to sign and issue such licenses. Davis appealed to state officials for some type of accommodation of her conscience objections, but received no help. Only when her deputy clerks agreed to issue such licenses to same-sex couples was she released from jail.
However, then-candidate for Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin visited Davis while she was in jail and promised to work on her behalf if he was elected, and even campaigned on that issue. And in November, Bevin defeated the incumbent, Gov. Steve Beshear, who had ordered all county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses while offering no accommodations to Kim Davis or any other clerk for possible religious objections. One of Bevin’s first acts as the new governor was to issue an Executive Order removing the necessity for county clerks to sign marriage licenses, which was all Kim Davis had been requesting. The legislature later backed up Gov. Bevin’s EO by enacting legislation to the same effect. In February 2016, the federal judge who incarcerated Davis dismissed an attempt by the ACLU to keep the case alive.
Today, the conscience protection afforded to Kim Davis and the other county clerks in Kentucky can be directly traced to the election of Gov. Matt Bevin.
Elections have consequences.
Sometimes, even one single candidate can make a significant difference in the lives of those he or she represents. Almost overnight, the election of new governors in Louisiana and Kentucky significantly impacted religious freedom in those two states.
Your vote can make a difference for you, your family, and for the ability of the Gospel to be freely lived out in your community. Prayerfully consider the choices you are presented on Election Day, and take the opportunity to help improve the lives of you and your neighbors.
Help pass along to your children the freedoms that made this country great!