Texas Gov. Greg Abbott claims to support religious freedom, but it seems that's the case only if religious organizations obey his political demands. If they don't, the governor will have state officials threaten them.
Politicians have been attacking the Obama administration's efforts to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States. Those politicians say that Muslim extremists might be among the refugees (regardless of the long, intensive vetting process before Syrian refugees are allowed into the country). Some have even suggested that the United States take in only Christian refugees and slam the door on Muslims trying to escape the war that has destroyed their homes and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Last month Gov. Abbott declared that Texas would refuse to accept any refugees and "demanded" that the federal government do the same. Shortly afterward, state officials warned private, nonprofit agencies not to help Syrian refugees resettle in the Lone Star State. Heads of those nongovernmental agencies, especially faith-based nonprofits, have reacted with shock and dismay.
Bee Morehead, head of Texas Impact, a faith-based public policy organization, has expressed concern that the governor is demanding that faith-based organizations violate federal law and the terms of their federal contracts. Moreover, she has explained, these organizations do their work because of their religious calling: "Serving strangers in need is a widely held religious value - even when it's risky."
In fact, news reports have pointed out that most of the refugee resettlement services in Texas are run by religious nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities and BCFS (formerly Baptist Family Child and Family Services).
But Gov. Abbott doesn't care. In fact, we learned today that the state is now threatening to sue agencies that help refugees in defiance of the governor's demands. Here's an excerpt from one letter state officials sent to the International Rescue Committee offices in Dallas:
"We have been unable to achieve cooperation with your agency. Failure by your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination of your contract with the state and other legal action."
Legal experts say the Constitution doesn't allow states to unilaterally block federal efforts to resettle refugees. But Gov. Abbott is bullying these agencies anyway.
We wonder whether the governor remembers saying this when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Constitution protects the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry:
“Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings, Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected. No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.
“The Texas Constitution guarantees that ‘[n]o human authority ought, in any case whatsoever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion.’ The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion; and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, combined with the newly enacted Pastor Protection Act, provide robust legal protections to Texans whose faith commands them to adhere to the traditional understanding of marriage.
“Texans of all faiths must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious freedom is beyond the reach of government. Renewing and reinforcing that promise is all the more important in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges [the same-sex marriage case]. The government must never pressure a person to abandon or violate his or her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding a topic such as marriage. That sort of religious coercion will never be a ‘compelling governmental interest,’ and it will never be ‘the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.’”
Apparently, Gov. Abbott is pretty selective about when government may impose on someone's religious beliefs.
Whether the United States should take in Syrian refugees is outside the issues that TFN addresses. But supporting religious freedom is a core part of our mission. Religious-right groups, who are among Gov. Abbott's strongest political backers, say they also support religious freedom. (In fact, they even insist that anti-discrimination laws represent a government attack on the religious freedom to, well, discriminate.)
So why haven't we heard objections from those groups regarding Gov. Abbott's bullying of religious nonprofits that help refugees? Probably because religious-right groups care more about using faith as a political weapon than in really protecting religious freedom. The same thing appears to be true of Gov. Abbott.