The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission exists to assist Southern Baptist churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with churches and other Southern Baptist entities.
Under the leadership of Brent Leatherwood, elected as president in 2022, the ERLC has consistently shown a steadfast commitment to its foundational principles while adeptly navigating the evolving challenges of our time. From our offices in Nashville, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., our work is rooted in the truths of Scripture and can be categorized in four main areas: life, religious liberty, marriage and family, and human dignity.
Here are some of the highlights from our work in these areas featured in our 2023 Annual Report.
In the wake of the landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the ERLC reinforced its dedication to pro-life advocacy. This pivotal ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade, brought new challenges and opportunities for the Commission. The ERLC remains resolute in its mission to foster a culture where life is cherished at every stage, advocating for the dignity of all, from conception to natural death.
During the ongoing Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations session, ERLC has prioritized safeguarding life and religious liberty. In recent years, we were concerned with the removal of pro-life and conscience protection riders, including the Hyde Amendment, from the initially proposed 2022 and 2023 appropriations bills. At the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention, a resolution was passed condemning efforts to remove these pro-life riders. The ERLC thoroughly reviewed the appropriations bills and continues to advocate for these riders and against pro-abortion funding.
Post-Dobbs, the Biden administration pushed policies promoting abortion access such as expanding access to abortion pills, funding abortion travel, and using taxpayer funds for abortion access education. This included changes by the VA and the Department of Defense to facilitate abortions, and the adaptation of HIPAA by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which could hinder investigations into illegal abortion and gender-transition procedures, raising concerns about the protection of those who have been abused.
The Food and Drug Administration also made chemical abortion drugs more accessible, despite a high complication rate. And we continue to monitor a court case challenging the FDA’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone.
At the state level, the ERLC collaborated with North Carolina Baptists to impose a 12-week abortion limit in North Carolina and with Nevada Baptists to prevent Nevada from becoming a destination for assisted suicide. We are committed to working with state conventions to protect life from conception to natural death.
The ERLC’s defense of religious liberty has been unwavering. In 2023 we championed this cause through significant legislative and Supreme Court victories. By upholding the Baptist principle of a “free church in a free state,” the ERLC has ensured that the proclamation of the gospel continues unimpeded by governmental constraints.
We’ve recently focused on responding to two significant Supreme Court decisions impacting religious liberty: Groff v. Dejoy and 303 Creative v. Elenis.
In the Groff case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the standard for religious accommodations in the workplace, set by a 1977 decision, had been misinterpreted. This unanimous ruling clarifies that employers face a higher burden before denying religious accommodations. As Southern Baptists, we firmly believe in the inseparability of our faith from our work. Reflecting this belief, we filed an amicus brief to support the expansion of religious accommodations.
The 303 Creative case was another crucial victory. The court sided with Lorie Smith, a web designer who chose not to create websites for same-sex marriages, against a Colorado law that had targeted others for their beliefs, like cake artist Jack Phillips. This ruling not only upheld free speech but also acknowledged the constitutional protection of creative expression. It’s a significant win for individuals wanting to express their faith publicly.
At the federal level, we’ve been actively countering efforts by Congress and the administration that threaten religious liberty. We’ve opposed the Respect for Marriage Act and the Equality Act, both of which we find detrimental to religious freedom. The administration’s push to expand regulations on sexual orientation, gender identity, and abortion access often undermines religious liberty. We’ve responded through public comments pushing back against these changes across various federal departments including Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, and USAID.
At the state level, our partnership has extended to various SBC groups. With the Arkansas Baptists, we encouraged the adoption of a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In Wisconsin, we joined the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptists in an amicus brief supporting a Catholic charity’s right to operate according to their religious convictions. Our advocacy always aims to protect the ability of religious organizations to function without undue government interference.
Marriage and Family
Upholding the God-ordained institutions of marriage and family remains a cornerstone of the ERLC’s advocacy. In 2023, we actively engaged in policy discussions, supporting legislation aligned with biblical values and opposing acts like the Equal Rights Amendment and the Respect for Marriage Act, which deviate from these principles.
We achieved a significant victory in the area of marriage and family with the defeat of the “transgender mandate.” This mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act and implemented through the HHS, would have compelled medical professionals to provide gender-transition care, conflicting with their religious beliefs and medical judgment. Since its inception, we have actively opposed this policy.
In early 2022, we reiterated our stance by submitting public comments to HHS, calling for the repeal of the mandate. Thankfully, two federal court cases challenged the mandate and successfully struck it down as unconstitutional. The Biden administration chose not to appeal these decisions, preserving religious liberty and conscience protections.
We believe that this gender ideology directly contradicts God’s design for family and human flourishing. Our commitment remains strong to oppose any future policies that would undermine these values or infringe upon religious and conscience protections.
Part of our advocacy includes supporting parents in their pivotal role within the family. We collaborated with the Iowa Baptists and Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptists to file amicus briefs in state-level cases. These briefs emphasized the critical role of parents and contested any efforts by schools to intervene in matters of gender and sexuality, which are sensitive and significant for a child’s upbringing.
In Congress, our advocacy continues to focus on policies that support and strengthen families. In the post-Dobbs environment, there’s a growing momentum to support vulnerable women and families. While there’s ongoing debate about the most effective policies, it’s heartening to see congressional recognition of family needs and the exploration of creative solutions. The ERLC is dedicated to endorsing policy changes that bolster family and marriage, enhance child welfare, respect the dignity of work, and responsibly manage financial resources.
The ERLC’s commitment to human dignity is evident in its wide-ranging efforts. From criminal justice reform to the care of immigrants, the Commission has been a vocal advocate for policies that recognize the inherent value of every person because each individual is made in the image of God (imago Dei).
Our work in promoting human dignity faced challenges due to a divided Congress, hindering the passage of significant legislation in areas like immigration and criminal justice reform.
Regarding immigration, we actively advocated for improvements in border security and a permanent solution for “Dreamers.” Despite our efforts, a compromise was not reached in time. We also championed a secure legal status pathway for Afghan and Ukrainian evacuees in the U.S. under “humanitarian parole.” Although these individuals are essentially refugees, they lack formal pathways to permanent status. Disappointingly, the Afghan Adjustment Act, despite having broad bipartisan support, was not included in the final legislative package.
Our commitment to immigration issues led us to join other Southern Baptists on an educational trip to the border. This experience significantly informed our approach, especially in light of the anticipated end of Title 42. Working with SEND Relief, we prepared border states for this policy change and urged Congress to take the necessary actions.
In the realm of criminal justice, we hoped to see the passage of the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act in the fiscal year 2023 appropriations. This bill aimed to address sentencing disparities that disproportionately affect Black Americans. Despite its passage in the House and substantial bipartisan Senate support, it was not included in the final appropriations package.
Despite these setbacks, we remain committed to engaging in these critical issues. Our efforts extend to regulating predatory gambling and lending practices, supporting human rights and religious freedom globally, and fighting against human trafficking. Our dedication to these causes is unwavering, even in the face of slow progress, as we continue to advocate for policies that uphold human dignity and justice.
Shaping public policy for Southern Baptist interests
Throughout 2023, the ERLC diligently represented Southern Baptist interests in public policy while navigating complex legislative landscapes. Our work, particularly in defending pro-life and pro-religious liberty provisions in appropriations bills, underscores our influential role in shaping policies that resonate with Southern Baptist beliefs.
As we look to the future, the ERLC remains dedicated to guiding churches in addressing the pressing moral and social issues of our times, continuing our vital role in the service of truth and gospel proclamation.