Washington D.C., Jan 10, 2017 / 12:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- You may not have heard of it, but a group of members in Congress advocates for public prayer and religious freedom amid some of the most pressing concerns to people of religious belief today.
The Congressional Prayer Caucus, founded in 2005, announced Monday that it will be getting a new co-chair.
“Prayer is a source of strength and hope for so many Americans – a source we must recognize and protect,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) stated after being selected Jan. 9 to serve as the House co-chair of the caucus.
“Though politics can be divisive at times, prayer should be a uniting force for Congress and for our nation. I look forward to serving the caucus and fighting to protect one of the foundations of our First Amendment,” Walker continued.
What is the Congressional Prayer Caucus and what is its purpose?
There are hundreds of member caucuses, committees, and taskforces on Capitol Hill that pursue various legislative goals in the U.S. Congress, from the Congressional Black Caucus to the House Freedom Caucus.
The Congressional Prayer Caucus, founded in 2005 by former Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), advocates for the free exercise of religion in the U.S. In the last congressional term, it had over 90 members from both parties and both houses of Congress.
After Rep. Forbes’ time in Congress ended this past year when he lost his re-election bid to a primary challenger, Rep. Walker was picked to take his place as House co-chair. Walker has previous served in Christian ministry, including at Lawndale Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C.
“Freedom of conscience is part of who we are as a nation, and we must preserve this fundamental freedom in our nation. That's why I founded the Prayer Caucus,” Forbes stated. “Today, the strength and size of the Caucus is a testament to the importance of protecting and preserving our nation's Judeo-Christian heritage.”
The Senate co-chair is Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who has spoken out for religious freedom both in the U.S. and internationally. He co-sponsored the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 that was signed into law in December, and led a move to have language changed in a government naturalization study guide from “freedom of worship” to “freedom of religion.”
Some examples of the caucus’ work in past years include advocating for the freedom of religious groups and charities to serve and evangelize in public places such as secular college campuses or military hospitals, defending the freedom of non-profits to make employment decisions based on religion, and working to ensure that “In God We Trust” remains the U.S. national motto.
Some of the caucus’ goals for 2017 will be religious freedom cases of schools and non-profits.
They will be advocating for protections for doctors and hospitals who conscientiously refuse to provide services such as abortions or contraceptives. They will also push to ensure that religious universities are protected from discrimination lawsuits in their hiring decisions and from supposed Title IX infractions.
Perhaps the highest-profile religious freedom case today would be the lawsuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS contraception mandate’s “accommodation” which the Supreme Court sent back to the lower courts, instructing both sides to work out a solution.
Other cases involve government regulations that conflict with the freedom of religious schools to operate according to their beliefs. For example, Wyoming Catholic College cut off its reliance on federal funding for student loans and grants in order not be subject to Title IX anti-discrimination interpretations that could force any school receiving federal funding to take actions that would violate their religious mission.
In another case, guidance from the Obama administration last year instructed schools to, in accordance with Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, “treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex,” which school districts or parents could find morally objectionable.
In a recent case, the administration’s mandate that doctors and hospitals perform gender-transition procedures and abortions – and that religious groups cover these procedures in their health plans — was challenged in court by the Catholic Benefits Association and the Diocese of Fargo.
“By redefining ‘sex’ to mean both ‘gender identity’ and ‘termination of pregnancy,’ the Obama administration is not only trying to sidestep Congress and impose radical new healthcare mandates on hospitals and employers, it is creating a moral problem for Catholic employers that must be addressed,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the Catholic Benefits Association, stated.