Religion and the 107th Congress: Implications for the Separation of Church and State

By Albert J. Menendez

Winter 2000-01

The religious affiliations held by Members of Congress play a role, to be sure, in the whole context or culture in which certain legislative measures are debated and final legislation is determined. Scholars disagree, however, about the extent of the influence and its interaction with other factors. For example, how important will religious faith, values or tradition be to a given member? How important are the religious convictions of his or her constituency in shaping a vote? How about political party membership or overall ideology?

Catholic members have become somewhat more liberal and separationist on most church-state issues during the past two decades. For example, American Catholics as a whole are far more supportive of abortion rights than they were in the 1970s. One of the intriguing revelations in congressional voting patterns that emerged in the 1990s was that a number of Catholic Republican moderates defected to the prochoice side, offsetting a small number of Catholic Democrats who opted for the antichoice position. Catholic Members of Congress are also much less enthusiastic about schemes to aid nonpublic or parochial schools than they were during the tax credit votes in 1978. On school prayer issues, Catholic congresspeople divide along party lines, and since there are consistently more Democrats than Republicans among the Catholic ranks, the majority oppose attempts to “restore” school prayer. (Most of these Catholic representatives are well aware that their communities are minorities in districts where school prayer and similar activities are encouraged, largely in the rural South.)

Religion in the 107th Congress

The 107th Congress will include 150 Catholics, 72 Baptists and 65 Methodists in its membership. These three religious groups make up the majority of the 535 members of the US Congress just elected. There will also be 49 Presbyterians, 41 Episcopalians, 37 Jews, 29 Protestants without a denominational affiliation, 20 Lutherans, 15 Mormons and 8 members of the United Church of Christ.

In addition, eight members call themselves “Christian” without any further designation, while six belong to Eastern Orthodox churches, including freshman Republican Daniel Issa of California, a member of the Antioch Christian Church.

There are five Christian Scientists, four Disciples of Christ, three Assembly of God members, three Seventh-day Adventists, three Unitarian-Universalists, and two members each of the Christian Reformed Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Six small denominations have one member each, and seven members report no religious affiliation.

The top ten rankings by religious groups has remained unchanged for several elections. Methodists picked up six new congresspeople in the 2000 election, reversing a steady decline over the past four decades. Baptists and Jews each gained three seats in the 2000 election; in fact, the first Jewish Republican ever elected to Congress from Virginia was Eric Cantor of the Richmond area. Baptists are sharply divided between African American Democrats, who are staunch liberals and supporters of church-state separation, and Southern Baptist Republicans, who are among the strongest conservatives and are often counted as supporters of the religious right.

Presbyterians gained two seats, while Episcopalians lost one, almost reversing a long decline. There are seven newly elected Episcopalians, which nearly offset the retirement or defeat of eight of their co-religionists. Both Presbyterians and Episcopalians remain predominately Republican.

Roman Catholic congresspeople declined by one, but remain by far the largest religious group in Congress. Despite intense Republican campaign efforts aimed at Catholic voters, the Catholic delegation numbers 91 Democrats and 59 Republicans.

Lutherans and United Church of Christ ranks are down by two from the 1998 election, and Mormons and unspecified Christians were each reduced by one. The religiously nonaffiliated were one fewer after this election. Altogether, 24 different religious groups were reported in the new Congress. The largest decline in membership came from those who call themselves “Protestant,” with no further designation; this group declined by five members. This very slight shift to the Protestant center/right is unlikely to have a major impact on the outcome of most church-state controversies.

Church and State in the Term to Come

Predicting Congressional actions on church-state issues in the first session of the 107th Congress is risky business. The bitterness of this election, the nail-biting closeness of the results in the presidential race and in the battle for the US Senate, coupled with a slender Republican majority in the House, are all likely to affect the pace and timing of the competing agendas.

Make no mistake about it: those who advocate a more theocratic (they prefer to call it “religion-friendly”) state will press their misbegotten agendas in Congress, in state legislatures and lower-level courts.

It is likely that Republicans will proceed slowly on the contentious social, cultural and church-state issues, as they did in the first Reagan administration-if only because their priorities are more oriented to taxes, social security and Medicare reform, and enhanced military spending. Much depends, too, on how much immediate pressure is placed on the GOP leadership by their allies in the religious right, who can point to the massive bloc votes from religious conservatives and fundamentalists that enabled the Bush-Cheney ticket to sweep every Deep South and Border South state.

With these caveats in mind, it is reasonable to suppose that the abortion-rights front will feel some pressure rather soon. According to a House Republican source, another attempt to ban so-called “partial-birth” abortions will come up reasonably soon in 2001. The likelihood of final passage is weaker in the Senate, however, where President Clinton’s repeated vetoes of the ban have been upheld.

Another attempt to pass a “Child Custody Protection Act,” which would make it a federal offense to take a minor across state lines for an abortion in states that have a parental consent law, is expected in the House, but such a bill would probably fail in the Senate, with its reduced Republican majority. However, bills containing restrictions on the distribution of RU-486, stronger parental notification requirements, the re-application of gag rules to the Title 10 Family Planning programs, a reassertion of gag rules affecting US-funded family planning programs to Third World nations, and restrictions on stem cell research are all likely to be introduced at some time in the new Congress.

On the voucher front, it is likely that Congress will take up some kind of school choice voucher designed solely for the District of Columbia’s poorer children, as a kind of experimental program. Introduced by Dick Armey (R) of Texas, such a bill may face stiff opposition, especially since D.C. voters rejected a voucher-like scheme in 1981 by a whopping 89% to 11% margin.

There is also a voucher element in the proposed Community Renewal Act, sponsored previously by Reps. J.C. Watts (R-OK) and Jim Talent (R-MO)-who resigned and ran unsuccessfully for Missouri’s governorship. Passage is uncertain; much depends on the leadership and on presidential support for the bill, and the overwhelming defeat of vouchers in California and Michigan may reduce Congressional support somewhat.

Congress is unlikely to take action on school prayer and other attempts to bring religious activities into the public sphere. Certainly, Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook (R) will continue to push some measures along these lines, but his ally, Charles Canady (R-FL), has retired. Such bills inevitably face more difficulty getting through the Senate than the House, and that roadblock may have been strengthened in this election.

A “Ten Commandments” bill, allowing for the public posting of the Decalogue in schools and courthouses, may be introduced, according to a House Republican insider, but final passage could be slowed down by much constitutional scrutiny and theological wrangling over which version, the Protestant, the Catholic, or the Jewish, would be posted. In practice, the Protestant version would be the most likely to be used, setting off new debates about equal protection of the laws and government establishment of religion.

Other issues with religious implications include expansions of charitable-choice provisions in welfare reform renewals and in drug rehabilitation programs, as well as modifications in the marriage penalty tax. Both concepts have widespread support and would probably pass in some form, though religious groups that take advantage of increased federal revenue under charitable choice could face additional regulations and restrictions that they may be unwilling to accept.

Make no mistake about it: those who advocate a more theocratic (they prefer to call it “religion-friendly”) state will press their misbegotten agendas in Congress, in state legislatures and lower-level courts. The success or failure of such efforts will depend to a large extent on the parties and their constituencies, as well as on public opinion. It will also depend on the executive branch. How hard will a Bush White House push on these divisive issues?

Over the long haul, the most serious threats to religious liberty and the separation of church and state are judicial appointments: appointments to the federal judiciary and, above all, to the US Supreme Court. Congress will have a say in these nominations, and thus will affect issues regarding church and state, religious freedom, equality before the law, and protection for religious minorities in an increasingly pluralistic society. Only charismatic leadership with a sense of history and a magnanimity of spirit will be able to guide this nation through the morass of distrust, anger, cynicism and disillusion that exists, even in an age of unparalleled prosperity.

Albert J. Menendez is associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty and the author of a number of books on church-state relations and politics.

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