A conversation with J. Brent Walker, advocate for freedom
WASHINGTON, D.C. — At yearend, J. Brent Walker retires as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a (mostly) welcomed and respected (by non-extremists) voice on Capitol Hill. The following conversation allowed for his reflections on 27 years of advancing the cause of religious freedom for all Americans.
NFJ: What are the punctuation marks (highlights for you) from your time with the BJC that will long stay with you?
JBW: I could name so many, but these are some of the more substantive hallmarks:
Working to convince Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign two important pieces of legislation to restore heightened protection for the exercise of religion: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000).
I enjoyed attending RFRA’s signing in the Rose Garden, and my colleague Melissa Rogers attended RLUIPA’s signing in the Oval Office.
Of similar importance was leading the coalition — along with David Saperstein — that successfully helped to defeat the attempt in 1998 to amend the First Amendment to return state-sponsored prayer to the public schools and to authorize government funding of religious education and ministry.
I take pride in several efforts to help us understand how religion should be dealt with in the public schools.
This includes several sets of helpful guidelines (including one adopted by the Federal Department of Education), to defending the constitutionality of the Equal Access Act of 1984, to giving practical advice to teachers and parents about how to accommodate the religious needs of students without permitting the government to promote religion or officiate religious exercise.
NFJ: Can you identify noticeable shifts in the religious liberty scene over the years since your work began?
JBW: The religious liberty scene has changed over the past quarter century. In some ways religious liberty is in better shape than it was when I started. In other ways it’s worse.
We have lost ground when it comes to constitutional protection against the establishment of religion, such as state-sponsored religious exercises and government-funded church ministries and religious education.
We have been up and down concerning protections for the free exercise of religion, losing ground as a matter of constitutional interpretation but gaining through legislation supported by the BJC, such as RFRA and RLUIPA.
The law continues to be quite solid when it comes to the so-called “church autonomy doctrine,” designed to keep government from meddling in the internal affairs of houses of worship and courts from adjudicating internal property and employment controversies.
This was reinforced by the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in the Hosanna-Tabor case in 2012, approving the “ministerial exception” to the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.
We are growing in our acceptance of the constitutional principle found in Article VI barring religious test for public office, both in terms of the letter and spirit of the ban.
The BJC has always worked to defend and extend religious liberty for all and uphold its constitutional corollary, the separation of church and state. We sometimes quip that 25 years ago we had to defend the “separation of church and state,” explain what it means and show why it is important.
Nowadays, we more often have to justify the importance of “religious liberty,” which in many quarters has become a catchphrase for denying civil rights of other citizens. A curious twist!
NFJ: What and from whom have you learned over the past 27 years?
JBW: From my predecessor James Dunn, I learned how to express complicated church-state issues simply (or try to) without skating roughshod over nuance and to express it with passion.
Buzz Thomas, my predecessor as general counsel, taught me almost everything I learned about the First Amendment, how to negotiate work on Capitol Hill, and the importance of compromise — accepting the “politics of the half loaf” — without sacrificing core principles.
In Rep. Chet Edwards I saw an example of a politician standing up for religious liberty at the risk of his political career.
NFJ: Organizationally, the BJC has experienced changes during your tenure. What pleases you most about the changes you helped to bring about as executive director?
JBW: After the separation from the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Joint Committee has retained its “jointness” with our 15 bodies continuing to work together, despite disagreements from time to time.
[Another change is] developing and building the BJC’s Center for Religious Liberty on Capitol Hill and the opportunity for greater education efforts among Baptists and the country at large.
In addition to the BJC’s historic work in litigation — primarily at the Supreme Court — and legislation — mostly in Congress — we have elevated education as one of our principal activities.
This includes speaking in churches and denominational meetings; teaching in colleges, seminaries and law schools; and maintaining a consistent presence on social media.
Also important are various initiatives such as the BJC’s internship and BJC Fellows programs, high school essay contest, two lectureships, and our flagship publication Report from the Capital.
Finally, the BJC has become more financially secure through the work of intentional development programs, a successful capital campaign, and an expanded endowment funded in large measure by testamentary gifts. NFJ
Story and Photos by John D. Pierce