J. Brent Walker expects a busy year for the BJC in 2014. (BJC photo)
J. Brent Walker expects a busy year for the BJC in 2014. (BJC photo)

Busy year ahead for religious liberty, BJC

The Baptist Joint Committee's J. Brent Walker recaps the biggest legal and organizational developments for the BJC — and anticipates more of the same in 2014.

By Jeff Brumley

In some ways, 2013 was a typical year for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, with legal briefs to file, politicians and Supreme Court justices to sway and religious liberty to defend. In other ways, it was a ground-breaking year for the Washington-based agency that saw expansion of its facilities, operations, staff and educational efforts.

Executive Director J. Brent Walker said that growth will continue in 2014, when the organization launches a new website and more aggressively promotes religious liberty both inside the Beltway and beyond. “Most of it will be an intensification of what we are already doing,” he said.

ABPnews interviewed Walker recently about the organization’s key actions this year and the big cases expected in 2014.

What’s the pace like in DC and at the BJC this time of year?

Things definitely slow down from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. Congress is normally out, and if we don’t have a case to be argued before the Supreme Court for that time period.... But like any nonprofit, the end of the year is very important to us for our fundraising efforts. We are very busy trying to make our budget for 2013 and talking to our donors.

Have you had time to reflect on 2013 — how was that year for the BJC?

It has been a very good year. We completed the first year in our new Center for Religious Liberty on Capitol Hill, which we had planned for and developed for several years now.... We have increased our staff size. Charles Watson Jr., has come on board as education and outreach specialist, and is in charge of our new center. He’s charged with expanding our base of support for religious liberty through networking…. We have always been very much involved in public policy issues in the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House, but it’s equally important for us to launch an education effort … on the importance of the separation of church and state.

Is there a practical, tangible benefit to this education effort?

Yes: we can’t do it all ourselves.... We need colleagues and advocates arguing at the local level and we need additional advocates in the cause. We can go to the Congress with our message and to the White House and the Supreme Court. But in the final analysis, it’s the people that decide the issues. Congress votes and justices decide, but they are there because of the votes of the people, and we need a populace educated on these issues.

What were some of the big legal issues for BJC in 2013?

We filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Town of Greece (v. Galloway), involving the city of Greece and legislative prayer at city council meetings. That case has not been decided yet and we will find out next year how that turns out....  We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the anniversary of its passage. It’s a very important piece of legislation restoring high level of free exercise of religion.

What major religious freedom cases do you expect to see in 2014?

The (Supreme) Court has agreed to hear the challenge to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act that will be heard this coming year and decided before the end of the summer. That will be a big case. That case deals with whether the exemption for churches and religious organizations in the Affordable Care Act should also extend to commercial, for-profit, non-religiously-affiliated corporations. The Court will decide whether corporations can exercise religion and … whether the owners of that corporation can suffer a substantial burden on their conscience if the contraception coverage is afforded to women employees — and, if so, whether the state has a sufficiently compelling interest to override the burden.