Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Halloween is still two weeks away, but Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s resolve to remove tax-exempt status from churches and other nonprofits sent shivers through viewers of CNN’s recent presidential town hall forum.  We expect every presidential candidates to uphold the First Amendment rights of all, and Beto’s conflation of same-sex marriage with human rights isn’t merely a political trick to garner voters from LGBT activists. He’s working from a larger playbook, making it a scary moment for religious freedom.

The Democratic party is coming dangerously close to intoxicating itself on the witches’ brew of “you’re a hater if you don’t agree with me on social issues.” Imbibing rhetoric that makes religious freedom subservient to an LGBT litmus test over the definition of marriage may feel good at the moment but it will come back to haunt them.

As the director of a non-profit dedicated to upholding religious freedom, I’m alarmed when politicians and organizations openly threaten our First Amendment freedoms by using the state to oppress the church. It’s even more troubling when one becomes the target of such a threat.

The other day I received a postcard that said my organization was on a website called Who’s Funding Hate? The California-based group called Unite Here equates “hate” with religiously informed views on marriage and outed organizations that received donations from the National Christian Foundation (NCF). The group often donates to conservative organizations like mine that believe in natural marriage. 

Unite Here’s postcard was a veiled threat that could be translated “if you don’t want to be listed as a hate group, confirm with us that you haven’t received donations from the NCF.” Such campaigns of intimidation and fear threaten the free exchange of ideas and my organization’s right to exist.

Political vindictiveness is on the rise, even here in Kentucky. Case in point: Kentucky Farm Bureau’s (KFB) annual breakfast in late August at the State Fair where the Kentucky Fairness Campaign tried to disrupt the meeting. Their director was arrested was for disorderly conduct. The reason for the protest? They didn’t like KFB’s policy positions on natural marriage and transgender bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools. Their Facebook page said “It’s time for Kentucky Farm Bureau to #StopTheHate! We are protesting their annual ham breakfast this morning!”

Opposing an organization’s policies is one thing.  Disrupting peaceful meetings and bullying organizations simply because they hold an opposing view is quite another.  There are ways to persuade an organization to change its policies. Disorderly conduct is not one of them.  

Intolerance is also increasing. Consider the harsh criticism aimed at Ellen Degeneres after she was seen laughing with former Pres. George W. Bush at AT&T Stadium while watching the Dallas Cowboy’s play the Green Bay Packers. How can one become a better neighbor if people with different views can’t even enjoy a ballgame together?  Shaming Degeneres and keeping political opposites apart is the strategy of extremists who are happier sowing division than seeking understanding and reconciliation. 

Degeneres explained that she’s a personal friend with George Bush and that she’s “friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s ok that we’re all different… . But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them.” 

Kudos to Ellen. Is this not a statement that everyone can agree with?

Living in a society with widespread differences of opinion can make us uncomfortable. But what’s the alternative? Forced conformity where individuals are alienated from their consciences? Such conformity isn’t only unneighborly, its incompatible with our constitutional rights that protect conscience and allow the free exchange of ideas.

It may be the season of jack o’lanterns and ghosts, but the specter of the state steamrolling churches and their members’ rights of conscience is even scarier. Respect for freedom of religion is fundamental to American politics and candidates for every office ought to know this.

This column appeared in the Richmond Register: