Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

Lobbying in the Shadows: Religious Interest Groups in the Legislative Process

Academic journal article Emory Law Journal

Lobbying in the Shadows: Religious Interest Groups in the Legislative Process

Article excerpt


The advent of the new religious institutionalism has brought the relationship between religion and the state to the fore once again. Yet, for all the talk of the appropriateness of religion-state interactions, scholars have yet to examine how it functions. This Article analyzes the critical, yet usually invisible, role of "religious interest groups"-lobby groups representing religious institutions or individuals-in shaping federal legislation. In recent years, religious interest groups have come to dominate political discourse. Groups such as Priests for Life, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Women's Christian Temperance Union, and American Jewish Congress have entered the political fray to lobby for legislative change that is reflective of specific religious values. These religious interest groups collectively spend over $350 million every year attempting to entrench religious values into the law. These groups have become the primary mechanism for religious involvement in federal politics, but, surprisingly, the place and role of these groups has yet to be examined by legal scholars.

This Article shows that the key features of religious interest groups reflect significant tensions within the emerging project of religious institutionalism. In developing this claim, this Article identifies two benefits claimed to result from religious involvement in politics-protecting religious liberty and enhancing democratic participation-and demonstrates that in fact these benefits are unlikely to result from religious interest group politicking. Instead, the pursuit of religiously bound interests as a legislative end results in the religious interest being pursued as an end in and of itself, consequently imposing significant costs on the values of religious liberty and democracy. Ultimately, this Article claims that when considering the place of religion in the political process, it is incumbent on scholars to consider both the institutional design question of how religious participation in politics is operationalized, as well as take into account both the costs and benefits of that involvement.


It has become par for the course among both politicians and commentators that religion does, and should, have a place in the federal legislative process. Legislators, executive officials, and other public figures publically proclaim the need-and their desire-to "work with religious groups" to enact legislation that responds to the needs of religious adherents in the community.1 Within the scholarly community, research on religious groups-that is, the study of the place and benefits of religious groups in political life- overwhelmingly advocates for inclusion of religious viewpoints.2 Indeed, the idea that religious groups should have a role in the political process has intuitive value. By including religious groups in politics and in the shaping of federal legislation on the front end,3 we might be reassured that the religious liberty of Americans is being taken into consideration.4 Recent Supreme Court decisions in both Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC5 and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.,6 reflect a judicial consensus of the appropriateness and value of religious involvement in public life.7

Yet, within the legal community debates about religion-state interactions rarely consider how this relationship functions. Despite increasing interest in the role of religious institutions in politics and society more broadly,8 there is scant study of the structure and operation of religious interest groups.9 This Article begins to fill this gap. It outlines how religious involvement in the political process has been operationalized through the overlooked institutions of "religious interest groups"-associations of either denominational houses of worship or collectives of individuals organized to advance a distinct religious viewpoint.10 This Article then examines the implications of religious interest groups for the principal justifications of religious participation in the political process: religious liberty and democratic participation. …

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