(This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Focus on the Family Citizen™ magazine.)
Events in Washington, D.C., may dominate headlines, but what happens closer to home—at the state and local levels—is often where the action is. Especially for Christians and social conservatives, who often show great grassroots strength in the dozens, if not hundreds, of battles they fight each year.
Take 2015, when pro-family groups faced both victories and setbacks, but ended the year on a high note. In November’s elections, Houston voters rejected a bathroom bill by a 22-point margin. Ohioans shot down legalized recreational marijuana by 30 points. And in Kentucky, Republican Matt Bevin shocked political observers with a 9-point win in the governor’s race after basing his campaign on moral issues, openly embracing Kim Davis, the county clerk who was jailed for refusing to sanction same-sex weddings.
The results shook conventional wisdom and rattled nerves in some media circles, which lately have sounded the theme that the country is rapidly, eagerly adopting progressive views. The Atlantic magazine titled a piece "Liberals Are Losing the Culture Wars," with reporter Molly Ball suggesting that "the left has misread the electorate’s enthusiasm for social change, inviting a backlash from mainstream voters invested in the status quo."
Pro-family groups hope to carry their momentum into 2016 with more laws promoting the sanctity of life and religious liberty. But they’ll have to play defense, too, against aggressive renewed efforts from gay activists and supporters of physician-assisted suicide. Citizen breaks down what you can expect to see this year.
Reining in Abortion
What’s Happened Lately:
"Literally hundreds of bills to protect life have been passed in the last couple decades," says John Paulton, manager of policy and research at CitizenLink, a public policy partner of Focus on the Family.
And those laws are true lifesavers. From 1990 to 2011—the last year for which data is available—the federal Centers for Disease Control report that the abortion rate was cut nearly in half nationwide. Researchers have found various pro-life laws can take part of the credit.
"Greater restrictions on abortion, requirements that women be informed, greater availability of ultrasound, parental notice and consent—they all work together to produce these results," Paulton says.
Pro-lifers continued to make progress in 2015. Some states focused on a particular aspect of abortion, like Wisconsin and West Virginia, which outlawed abortion after 20 weeks. Others did so with multiple bills, like Arkansas, which passed parental involvement, informed consent, limits on abortion-drug usage and measures defunding Planned Parenthood. Still others wrapped several goals into one bill, like Arizona, which took on taxpayer funding of abortion under Obamacare, facility regulations and requirements to inform women that the abortion-pill process can potentially be reversed if they act in time.
"So many people don’t realize a fraction of the good things that are happening," Paulton says.
At least 16 states have moved to ban or reduce taxpayer dollars going to Planned Parenthood, and the number is picking up: Half a dozen acted after the organization’s practices were exposed in undercover videos released last year. Some of those states, however, have had their laws suspended by judges favorable to Planned Parenthood, presaging some protracted courtroom slugfests in the months and years to come.
What’s Coming Up:
The uncertainties of the courts notwithstanding, pro-lifers are striking while the iron’s hot where Planned Parenthood is concerned.
In some cases they’re doing it in states where Republicans hold both the legislature and the governor’s mansion—states that might be expected to support pro-life goals, but which haven’t all proven eager to do so. Like Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has so far refused calls to shut off Planned Parenthood’s tax funding—prompting a major campaign by the Florida Family Policy Council (FFPC) to change his mind.
"We’re asking Gov. Scott very simply to just re-prioritize the money," says FFPC President John Stemberger. "It’s not complicated. There are 632 other federally qualified women’s health care facilities. Just take the (federal Title X) money that’s going to women’s health care and distribute it among all the other groups that could do it."
In other cases, pro-lifers are fighting on what they know is rugged terrain—like Pennsylvania, where power is split between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature.
"We know it’ll be tough, but there’s a real possibility that we may be able to make progress in reallocating some of those funds that currently end up with Planned Parenthood," says Tom Shaheen, vice president for policy at the Pennsylvania Family Council. "We have to counter the claim that if they don’t get the funding, women in some areas will be deprived of health services. It’s not true, and we want to clarify that for the general public."
Pennsylvania will also see an effort to outlaw abortions past 20 weeks, which may gain an impetus due to publicity surrounding infamous Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell.
"Gosnell’s house of horrors got people’s attention," Shaheen says. "It resonated with legislators and media figures who normally weren’t sympathetic to the pro-life cause. We want to keep their attention, and we hope this will educate people and change attitudes—much the way the partial-birth abortion law made an impact on a national level."
In these and other states, win or lose, pro-lifers keep plugging away—incrementally, step by step—with one priority in mind.
"Life is the most important issue," Stemberger says. "The right to privacy means nothing to a corpse."
Doctors or Killers
What’s Happened Lately:
Pro-lifers entered 2015 with reason to worry about renewed efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The much-publicized story of Brittany Maynard—a woman with terminal brain cancer who chose to end her life—figured to boost bills aiming to normalize the procedure. That, in turn, could pressure various ailing, depressed people to take their lives rather than receive comfort, care and support.
Yet in state after state, legislatures turned away from that path.
"The other side had a rough year on the whole," Paulton says. "They’d been defeated just about everywhere, including some liberal-leaning, even dark blue states like Connecticut and Delaware, and libertarian-leaning states like Colorado."
There was one exception, though, and it was a big one: California, which passed the bill in September, and saw Gov. Jerry Brown sign it into law on Oct. 5.
"They went way outside the normal means to get it through," Paulton says. "The bill had been stopped in committee in the summer: There clearly weren’t enough votes to get it passed, and it was never voted on there. So they created a new committee and rushed it through in a special session that was supposed to deal only with budget matters. They just rushed it through, with very little time for hearings or for people to raise their voice against it.
"It says something that even California, with its liberal bent on social issues, had to resort to these steps to get it done."
What’s Coming Up:
But they did get it done. And because California is often seen as a bellwether state, "they’ll try to parlay that into success in other places," Paulton says. "There’s no sign they’ll back away now."
Assisted-suicide backers are expected to press hard from coast to coast—from New York to Colorado to Hawaii.
You may never see a more lopsided partisan breakdown than that last state’s: Democrats hold an overwhelming 24-1 advantage in the Hawaii Senate and 44-7 in the House. But if you’re looking for an explanation of how pro-lifers have succeeded so far even in some of those dark blue states—at least on some issues—Hawaii is worth a closer look.
"We’ve seen sporadic efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide since 2001," says Eva Andrade, executive director of the Hawaii Family Forum. "We’ve held back all those attempts, with strong support from the Hawaii Medical Association, the disability-rights community and pro-life organizations."
Another factor: Senate Health Committee Chair Josh Green. Generally considered a social liberal, Green is also an emergency-room physician. "He’s worked hard to keep assisted suicide from passing," Andrade says.
Green recently lost his chairmanship as part of a larger Senate leadership shakeup. That’s a blow, Andrade says, but not necessarily a fatal one.
"What happened in California, and signs that we’ll most likely see a similar effort in Hawaii, has strengthened the resolve of our base of supporters," she says. "We’ll be prepared for the attack against our kupuna (elders) who are facing tough end-of-life decisions."
Paulton says a similar broad-based opposition to assisted suicide—religious leaders, doctors, people with disabilities—springs into action in any state where the issue arises.
"It’s quite a coalition that opposes it," he says. "We’ve got a fighting chance anywhere."
Faith and Conscience
What’s Happened Lately:
No topic is more hotly contested right now than religious liberty. Gay activists have intensified their campaign to enact special-rights measures and to delegitimize opposition to homosexuality. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide has created conflicts of conscience for many Christians—and other religious people—nationwide.
In response, pro-family groups have raised their own intensity, striving both to pass bills affirming religious liberty and to block legislation that would infringe on it. Their record in 2015: mixed.
Both Indiana and Arkansas passed solid religious-liberty protection laws—but Indiana’s, after a backlash from gay activists and their allies, including corporate interests, quickly fell victim to a "fix" that undermined the original bill’s whole purpose in any cases involving homosexuality.
Several states passed more specific protections: Texas for pastors and religious organizations; Michigan for faith-based adoption agencies; North Carolina for public officials performing weddings and Wisconsin for workers whose union dues could be used in ways that violated their principles.
Several other states—such as Nebraska, Idaho and North Dakota—defeated sexual-orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws coveted by homosexual-activist groups. And at least a dozen rejected bills to ban sexual orientation and change efforts (SOCE) therapy for minors. Two states, however (Illinois and Oregon), passed those bans, leaving young people without access to licensed counselors to help them overcome unwanted homosexual urges or gender confusion.
"The other side has really gotten organized and is pushing hard on this," Paulton says. "It’s so important to them to delegitimize the very idea that people can change, and what better way to do that than to ban the counseling—first with licensed counselors for minors, but later they’ll be after pastors and counseling for adults."
What’s Coming Up:
Expect the same sort of battles in 2016 as last year—but more of them.
"There’ll be a bunch of states putting forth religious-liberty bills—perhaps a couple dozen," Paulton says. "Many of them relate to marriage. Some will protect against state action based on your convictions about marriage. Others will protect against private action on the same basis, such as customers going after wedding vendors. Still others will be specific, targeted protections, like those for faith-based adoption agencies."
For example, Florida—which, in a 2013 adoption-reform bill, struck out wording protecting faith-based agencies that prefer placing children with a married mother and father.
"Legislators thought they were just striking out archaic language that prohibited homosexuals from adopting children," Stemberger says. "In reality, they were removing the strong protections that faith-based agencies had.
"These are the people doing what the Scripture calls ‘pure and undefiled religion.’ They deserve protection. Now we have to see whether we can get the legislature to step up to the plate and do what’s right."
Meanwhile, Paulton predicts a number of new SOGI and SOCE bills coming down the pike. "Pennsylvania is already waist deep in a big SOGI battle, and Indiana is bracing for one," he says, adding that Arizona and Michigan are among other states where pro-family groups are bracing for such fights.
Indiana is especially significant because the state’s leaders buckled under pressure last year. After the "fix" eroded religious-freedom protections in the face of local gay-rights ordinances, gay activists are pressing for a statewide SOGI.
"They smell blood in the water," says Ryan McCann, director of operations for public policy at the Indiana Family Institute. "They see it as an opportunity to continue to push leftward in a relatively red state. Once they’re a protected class in Indiana, then our (law) isn’t usable in any discrimination claims in any part of the state.
"The business interests and the media have been banging the drum that the image of the state has been hurt and (homosexuals) need to be a protected class, and it seems Republican leadership is trying to get ahead of it with a so-called compromise. So we’re going to be rallying our people to let legislators know how voters feel at the grass roots. People are tired of letting special interests decide public policy."
That’s a spirit Paulton detects among pro-family folk wherever he goes.
"There’s tremendous energy on the pro-family side," he says. "I see a lot of enthusiasm. I’m especially encouraged with pastors getting more engaged—pastors who’ve been pretty quiet in recent years, but now see the need to speak out more.
"At the same time, we need more. There are still people who are asleep at the wheel and need to be woken up, to realize where we’re headed if they don’t. And we’re going to spend the year getting all hands on deck."