WASHINGTON (BP) – Advocating for religious freedom and the sanctity of human life will headline the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s 2021 public policy priorities at what the Southern Baptist entity described as “a time of unique peril and uncertainty” for the United States.

The ERLC released its annual Public Policy Agenda Jan. 22 while “anxiety exists in perhaps unprecedented levels” from the COVID-19 pandemic, its accompanying economic stress and the recent invasion of the Capitol by protesters, Russell Moore and Travis Wussow wrote.

God does not provide followers of Christ with “the option to yield to fear or … cynicism,” Moore and Wussow said in the 14-page agenda. “A time of peril is also a time of opportunity, for witness, for cooperation, and for the quest for justice.”

Moore is the ERLC’s president, while Wussow is the entity’s general counsel and vice president for public policy.

The ERLC will pursue its agenda in a changed political environment that will make achieving some of its priorities extremely difficult.

The Democratic Party controls not only the House of Representatives but also the Senate and White House. Democrats took over the Senate by the slimmest of margins in the latest election, tying with the GOP at 50 seats apiece. The victory by Democrat Joe Biden – who was inaugurated Jan. 20 – over incumbent President Donald Trump resulted in new Vice President Kamala Harris becoming the deciding vote when a Senate roll call ends in a tie.

Wide-ranging, bipartisan support may exist on such issues as criminal justice reform, payday lending regulation and a just solution for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, Moore and Wussow wrote.

They said far less consensus probably will be found “in a divided and increasingly partisan” country on other issues, including the protection of unborn children and their mothers, increased safeguards for religious freedom and support for oppressed religious minorities overseas.

“Nonetheless, whether issues are currently popular or unpopular, we have the opportunity to bear witness, to seek to persuade, and to build the consensus needed to make change,” Moore and Wussow wrote.

Each of the agenda’s five sections – religious liberty, sanctity of human life, family and marriage, justice, international engagement – begins with an excerpt from the Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s confessional statement.

The ERLC’s 2021 agenda consists of 37 items, including:

  • Opposition to the Equality Act, legislation that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classifications protected in federal civil rights law. The measure “represents the most significant threat to religious liberty ever considered” in Congress, Moore and Wussow said in the agenda. “The bill would curtail religious freedom protections, hinder the work of healthcare professionals and faith-based hospitals, undermine civil rights protections for women and girls, and ultimately steamroll the consciences of millions of Americans.” Biden has said enactment of the proposal is a priority.
  • Protection of the Hyde Amendment and other pro-life riders in spending bills. The Hyde Amendment has barred Medicaid funding of abortion since 1976 and became the general label for such bans in federal health programs. Congress must pass the Hyde Amendment and similar prohibitions each year. The ERLC will work to retain Hyde “not only because it prevents government-funded violence against preborn children but also because it prevents the government from coercing citizens to act against conscience in the taxpayer incentivization of something we believe to be unjust,” according to the agenda. A longtime supporter of the Hyde Amendment as a U.S. senator, Biden reversed course as a presidential candidate in 2019.
  • Defense of religious liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ERLC “will continue to advocate that the government treat churches the same as similar activities, businesses, and spaces, while recognizing that God has given the state the authority to manage activities, businesses, and spaces during a national health crisis,” Moore and Wussow wrote.
  • Support of multiple pro-life bills, including proposals to require medical care for babies who are born alive during abortion procedures and to prohibit abortions of babies 20 weeks or more after fertilization based on evidence a child in the womb experiences pain by that point in gestation.
  • Promotion of policies designed to encourage adoption and foster care and to protect faith-based, child-welfare agencies from government discrimination.
  • Advocacy for restoring a strong refugee resettlement program to aid people fleeing religious persecution or other repression in their countries after it was reduced significantly by the Trump administration.
  • Support of a legislative solution for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children and with no permanent legal status.

The ERLC’s agenda is available at https://erlc.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ERL1001_LegisAgenda_012121b.pdf

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.