Prayer and Policy: National Leader on Religious Freedom Battles in California, Kansas
Lea Carawan of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation discusses pressing state battles affecting faith and free speech — and how prayer plays a role.
Over the next month, roughly half of U.S. states will conclude their legislative sessions. Several states are grappling with measures centered on religious freedom issues — specifically how the definition of marriage affects religious entities.
One faith-based group has been seeking to uphold the freedom of religion. Founded in 2005, the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation is involved with state legislators nationwide. Co-founder and executive director Lea Carawan notes how these battles come in the wake of the National Day of Prayer.
“I’ve heard nothing but great reports from prayer events nationwide,” she says. “Many leaders participated in the national observance at the U.S. Capitol where we gathered to pray across generations, ethnicities and denominations. It was a very important and pivotal day.”
In an interview from their southern Virginia office, Carawan shares her views on how prayer and policy are linked in surprising ways.
Caucus of Conviction
The Stream: What are the origins and purpose of your organization?
Lea Carawan: Beginning in 2005, Congressional members started to meet for 30 minutes before debate or votes in their sessions. They gathered to pray together from both sides of the aisle. The Congressional Prayer Caucus (CPC) was born.
This official caucus is currently co-chaired by Congressman Mark Walker and Senator James Lankford. Members commit to pray together and be a voice for ensuring America’s Judeo-Christian values are reflected in public policies. Nearly 90 members are active in upholding this mission at the federal level.
They also realized, We need to get up off our knees together and take action. Thus, the CPC Foundation was formed to mobilize a network of government leaders who protect religious freedom and uphold the Bible as a shaping factor in our nation. We have helped establish 31 legislative state prayer caucuses with over 900 members across the nation.
State directors are now serving in nearly every state. They have mobilized praying and action-oriented citizens who are supporting these legislators. This movement is starting to have a significant impact.
Battles Raging in State Houses
The Stream: Could you provide updates on the state-level religious freedom issues debated lately in Kansas and Oklahoma?
Carawan: The anti-faith agenda is ravaging our country. Specifically, faith-based adoption agencies have been under assault. Secularist groups have pressured authorities to require faith-based agencies to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs and place children in same-sex households.
State legislators in prayer caucuses have joined together on religious freedom legislation. Seven states now have taken a strong stand — Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma just last week. Kansas has also passed a bill to prevent discrimination against faith-based adoption agencies. We are awaiting the governor’s signature.
We hope this is followed by every state in the nation because it’s absolutely critical we ensure people are able to live according to their conscience, especially where it concerns child welfare.
Same-sex couples have abundant options to foster and adopt. We’re saying, Please do the right thing and be fair to everybody. There is no reason to force people of faith to violate their conscience.
The Stream: What is the situation in California regarding this free speech bill?
Carawan: The situations in California and Maine are different but related. In California, Assembly Bill 2943 threatens First Amendment rights and the freedom of religion. It’s astounding what they’re trying to do. They’re using the state’s Consumer Fraud Statute to restrict religious freedom and free speech.
This bill seeks to ban written material that promotes traditional Christian views on marriage and sexuality. If it was signed in to law, it would impact Christian counselors, bookstores, church conferences, medical and health professionals. We already have organizations that have cancelled meetings in California for fear of being threatened by lawsuits.
Some say, It’s not that big of a deal — this isn’t going to ban Bibles. The truth of the matter is, it could! The Bible is one of the most significant books espousing orthodox views on marriage and sexuality. This issue is very real. People need to take seriously how this puts a chilling effect on so many Christian groups.
They are trying to do the same thing in Maine, though it’s at an early stage. In California, it passed the State House and it’s moving through the Senate. This is a significant and scary development for free speech rights.
Conscience of the State
The Stream: Some contend expressions of faith should have no place in the public square. How do you respond to the “separation of church and state”?
Carawan: People often misapply that phrase Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in 1802. Those words were designed to protect the church from the state. It had nothing to do with keeping the church out of the government or the culture.
In state preambles and the Constitution itself, the record of history points to the role of faith in the public square. This idea of having no place for God in our culture, our schools and government is absurd and an incorrect way to look at that phrase “separation of church and state.”
The Stream: How can the marketplace of ideas remain free for all?
Carawan: We believe in freedom of conscience for everyone. The American founders understood that concept. So have our leaders for the past two centuries. Yet we are facing increasing hostility.
What is going on now is an egregious clamping down. People who hold these values are being told: You have no seat at the table. You need to sit down and not say a word. Go back into your churches. As long as we speak in church or at home, generally we’re fine. But they don’t want biblical views voiced in the public square.
These values are not something that we are going to throw away lightly. I want to hand down to my kids and grandkids a free republic, just like my parents gave me.
Seeking Higher Solutions
The Stream: There is so much rancorous debate right now in our culture. Why do you consider prayer for issues of government and politics important?
Carawan: When we go to God in prayer, we ask for his wisdom and direction. We come together in a place of humility, saying to him: We don’t have all the answers. But God does. He’s the one who sets up government. He established the principles and laws that are reflected in this nation — sometimes imperfectly, to be sure.
Something powerful happens when we come together from both sides of the aisle, from different perspectives, and get on our knees before God. Throughout history, astounding things happened when people are willing to go to God. We overcome obstacles and come to unified solutions. I believe prayer is the place to start.
Learn how to participate in the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.