Many states are ending their legislative sessions at this time, making it an appropriate moment to look back at the previous cycles for issues of importance to Southern Baptists. At the ERLC, we were generally following trends in four major areas:
- Religious liberty,
- Sanctity of Human Life,
- and Human Dignity.
In particular, the ERLC’s 2023 State Policy Review highlighted a number of potential pieces of legislation that were either causes of concern for Southern Baptists or were indicators of steps taken in agreement with biblical principles and evangelical convictions.
For many of the policies that the ERLC is watching, it should be noted that the process for state (and federal) legislation is often a long work. Thus, it is not uncommon for bills to be introduced and sit in a committee for several sessions before there is enough support among the legislators to bring it to the floor for debate and action. For state-level action, it is important to recognize the role that on-the-ground supporters and coalitions play in galvanizing support and encouraging legislators to take action rather than letting bills remain in subcommittees or be delayed by procedural measures.
During the 2023 legislative session, the ERLC was attentive to:
- support for healthcare workers’ conscience protections,
- state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) efforts,
- and protecting the religious liberty of foster care and adoption service providers.
While not a comprehensive list of religious liberty concerns, they are emblematic of the issues which are of significant importance at this time. With the overturning of Roe, healthcare worker religious liberty exemptions are important so that workers are not forced to complete procedures that violate their deeply held convictions, namely abortions or gender transition surgery.
Of the three bills that the ERLC highlighted as worth watching, two are still in committee in the state legislature:
- Iowa Senate Bill 1139 protecting faith-based foster care and adoption providers,
- and Kentucky House Bill 58 protecting conscience rights for healthcare workers
The Michigan Religious Freedom Act has been given to the discharge committee as of March and will be scheduled for floor debate and vote.
Sanctity of human life
The sanctity of human life is one area—possibly the area second only to religious liberty—where Southern Baptists have been the most consistent in their advocacy over the last four decades. With the Dobbs decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, the importance of state-level restrictions, bans, and policy has been crucial to saving the lives of the preborn and protecting women from the predations of the abortion industry.
A number of bills were referred to the various committees and subcommittees of their state legislatures but have unfortunately not progressed further such as:
- North Carolina House Bill 31, which outlawed abortion after a fetal heartbeat was detected except for medical emergencies,
- or Missouri Special Joint Resolution 8, which has been passed by the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee and awaits a full vote from the Senate and the House. The Missouri bill would ban the use of taxpayer funds for abortion providers and abortion services.
Though North Carolina did not move forward with House Bill 31, it did pass, after overriding the governor’s veto, the Care for Women, Children, and Families Act which bans abortion after 12 weeks and invests in childcare, foster care, and parental leave. While we were pleased to see this bill become law in North Carolina, we would like to see these legislatures take additional action in future sessions to bring these more robust pro-life protections to the full session to save preborn lives and protect taxpayers from participating in the horror of abortion.
However, there are other bills which have stalled in committee, and the ERLC is glad to see them not advance such as. This includes the New York Medical Aid in Dying Act which has been referred to the state’s Health Committee. This act would allow terminally-ill patients to request and use medication to end their lives, a position at odds with the oath of doctors to do no harm and medicine’s first principles of healing.
Two other bills that the ERLC was watching have been signed by the governors of the respective states. The first, Maryland House Bill 705, harmfully amends the Maryland Constitution to enshrine “reproductive rights,” codifying a right to abortion in the state constitution. This is a step that the ERLC opposes and that Southern Baptists have opposed as an attack on the dignity and worth of our preborn neighbors.
However, on a more encouraging note, the governor of Wyoming signed into law Senate Bill 109 which prohibited the manufacture, distribution, prescription, dispensing, sale, or transfer of any chemical abortion drugs for the purpose of an abortion. As the rate of chemical abortions rises, bills like these will become more important as individuals turn to pharmacists rather than abortion providers for the means to procure an abortion.
The decision in Dobbs has created an inflection point for state policy related to abortion, requiring Southern Baptists to be vigilant for how they can help to advance a culture of life in their state.
Family & marriage
As the fundamental building block of society, the family is of utmost importance. The ERLC has watched as states have advanced polices that help to further promote this foundational element of civilization. Key among these are the ways that states have moved to advance pro-life policies by easing the burden of families for childbearing and parenting. For example, Indiana House Bill 1009, signed into law in April by the governor of Indiana,
- increases the responsibility of fathers in regards to helping mothers with pregnancy expenses;
- builds on previous language by adding “postpartum expenses” to the list of covered expenses;
- and helps single mothers in particular by ensuring that fathers bear the responsibility of the cost of childbirth.
Additionally, the New Hampshire Senate has approved Senate Bill 172 which extends Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits to foster families and guardians who were previously excluded. It now goes to the New Hampshire House Finance Committee for vote and consideration.
Other bills that the ERLC has been watching have been referred to various committees for consideration but have not moved forward. Chief among these are:
- the Tennessee Youth Health Protection Act—which would ensure that it was unlawful for a minor to undergo medical procedures which change the child’s presentation or appearance in a way contradictory to their biological sex—has been assigned to the Tennessee House Subcommittee on Health;
- and the Georgia Parents and Children’s Protection Act of 2023—which would increase the right of parents in schools and require parental consent to discuss topics relating to gender and sexuality with students, and for a student to be recognized as a different gender—has been referred by the Georgia Senate.
While we would have liked to see both of these bills move forward to protect children from the dangerous ideology of transgenderism, we were pleased to see Tennessee, alongside several other states, pass House and Senate Bill 1 which bans many harmful medical “gender-affirming care” procedures.
The final major area that the ERLC is watching at the state level is that of human dignity. The ERLC advocates for laws that lead to human flourishing (Micah 6:8; Jam. 2:1-13) because we adhere to the truth that each person is made in the image of God, possessing inherent dignity and worth without impartiality. This includes advocacy for sexual abuse prevention measures such as:
- Mississippi House Bill 1371, which was referred to committee and not acted upon,
- and Washington Senate Bill 5280, which was sent to the Senate Rules Committee for an additional reading and review.
Both bills are proactive steps toward combatting sexual abuse and warrant future action.
Additionally, in keeping with the particular resolutions on criminal justice reform passed by the messengers at the SBC, the ERLC continues to watch the legislation in Oklahoma which assists prisoners in their reentry to society following their incarceration. Oklahoma Senate Bill 11, which would remove financial aid barriers for incarcerated students, is a helpful measure aimed at reducing recidivism. The bill has been passed by the House and introduced in the Senate.
The ERLC also was encouraged to see legislators in Georgia and voters in Oklahoma reject proposals that would have negatively affected individuals. The Georgia Sports Betting Integrity Act would have legalized access to online sports betting in the state, an action likely to negatively impact the poor and young who are the most likely participants in sports betting. The proposal failed to advance after a vote in the state senate. The voters of Oklahoma also rejected a ballot initiative to allow recreational marijuana usage for anyone over the age of 21.