The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) is an education and advocacy association in the United States with a number of Baptist denominations. It states that it seeks to promote religious liberty for all and to uphold the principle of church-state separation. It has, for example, joined with other religious organizations in opposing government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments.
The BJC defines itself in the following terms: "The mission of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government."
The BJC strives to avoid language of speaking "for" Baptists or "representing" Baptists. It is the firm belief of BJC staffers that, in the words of a former Executive Director of the organization, "You don't speak for Baptists. You only speak to Baptists."
The BJC restricts its activities to a small number of issues relating to religious liberty and the separation of church and state: church electioneering, civil religion, free exercise, government funding, political discourse, public prayer, and religious displays. On all of these issues, the organization supports a balanced approach that broadly interprets both the free exercise and no establishment clauses of the First Amendment.
To promote its positions on these issues, the organization uses the strategies of education, legislation, and litigation. They publish a wide array of materials relating to church-state separation, from self-published historical pamphlets to significant coalition statements.
One of the most effective educating tools in recent years was "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." Drafted and endorsed by a number of leading organizations spanning the political spectrum, from the National Association of Evangelicals and the Christian Legal Society to the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Council of Churches, the document was a resource for parents, students, teachers, and administrators throughout the United States. In fact, this document was later condensed and mailed to schools across the country by President Bill Clinton because of its accuracy and reliability. The Baptist Joint Committee was a member of the drafting committee for this document.
In addition to education, the Baptist Joint Committee participates in legislative activities geared towards advocating for the passage or defeat of various bills within the U.S. Congress. Most of these activities revolve around speaking directly to members of Congress concerning legislation, but occasionally the general counsel or executive director will be called upon to testify before Congress. Brent Walker, the current Executive Director, has testified before Congress on a number of occasions, most notably being on October 25, 1995, on the issue of the Religious Equality Amendment. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Walker said, "The best government can do is to get out of religion's way; the worst it can do is to get behind and push. The present constitutional language requires the former; the proposed amendments would allow the latter. Persons of faith who treasure religious liberty don't need or want an amendment."
A significant part of the BJC’s work to protect religious liberty has been its participation in religious liberty cases that are considered by various courts, particularly in the Supreme Court. The BJC engages in litigation by filing “amicus curiae” briefs, a term that means “friend of the court.” Those briefs are filed to assist the court by providing support for specific points at issue in the dispute. Throughout the BJC’s history, the organization has filed more than 120 legal briefs in court cases.
Serving 15 Baptist bodies, the BJC is a non-profit 501(c)(3) education and advocacy organization that has worked for more than 75 years promoting religious liberty for all and upholding the principle of church-state separation. It is supported by the following Baptist organizations:
In addition to receiving support from Baptist organizations, the BJC also receives support from individuals who identify with the cause of religious liberty and church-state separation.
Baptist involvement in public affairs began formally on Saturday, May 16, 1936, when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) created the Committee on Public Relations. The committee had the following charge:
This "first incarnation" of the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) was soon joined by a similar body chartered by the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) on May 25, 1937. Soon after, the Conventions began discussing the possibility of a joint venture, and both committees often worked jointly on issues of mutual concern. The NBC in 1937 and 1939 summarily passed resolutions promoting the combination of the committees, but the SBC resisted formal operational cooperation until 1941, when a resolution was finally passed that supported organizational merger. With the adoption of a precisely similar resolution from the NBC's Committee on Public Relations, the Joint Conference Committee on Public Relations was officially created.
The resolutions of both the SBC and the NBC included provisions for joint endeavor with the Committee on Public Relations of the National Baptist Convention, USA and the National Baptist Convention of America, and the reports to the SBC and NBC indicate that these two major black Baptist conventions were included in the cooperation surrounding the combination.
In 1946 the committee established offices in Washington, D.C., and became the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. Joseph Martin Dawson was elected the organization's first full-time Executive Director, a position he held until his retirement at age seventy-five on October 13, 1953.
Dawson's leadership led to a number of significant changes within the organization. One of the first was the introduction of the Report from the Capital, a periodical containing news and opinions of interest to politically minded Baptists. The first issue appeared in October, 1946, and the Baptist Joint Committee has published the Report ever since as a primary source for its opinions and views on church-state issues.
In addition to publishing the Report, the organization gained office space through the generous support of the Baptist World Alliance and the District of Columbia Baptist Association. Dawson also expanded the organization's base of support to include the Seventh Day Baptists, and the North American Baptist General Conference. Overtures were made to the various organizations of General Baptists, although such efforts were largely unsuccessful.
One of the final changes wrought by Dawson's tenure was the preparation of the BJC's first constitution. This constitution was one of the factors which led to the narrowing focus of the Baptist Joint Committee on issues related primarily to church-state separation. The constitution stated:
The [Baptist Joint Committee] shall be empowered to enunciate, defend, and extend the historic, traditional Baptist principle of religious freedom with particular application to the separation of church and state as embodied in the Constitution of the United States.
The relationship with the Convention got rockier throughout the 1980s. Prior to these years, resolutions had passed the annual meetings regularly expressing near-unanimous support to the BJC and its stands. But as the eighties brought charges of liberalism among the BJC staff on a variety of issues, James Dunn, who assumed his duties as Executive Director in 1980 at the beginning of the controversy, responded:
It's... disingenuous to lament the "left leaning" of the Baptist Joint Committee regarding issues on which we do not take a stand or lean at all.... The Baptist Joint Committee is chugging straight ahead on the course set in the 1980s by the members and staff of the BJCPA.
Throughout the controversy, significant leadership among the conservative faction were attacking Dunn repeatedly. an example comes from Paige Patterson: "[Dunn] hobnobs with the liberal establishment in the house and Senate.... That doesn't make us very happy either." In that same year, the convention defeated a motion to cut off funding for the BJC at their Kansas City meeting.
In 1986, relations seemed to improve when a special study committee formed by the Executive Committee to study a motion to cut off funding recommended maintaining ties with the BJC. An exhaustive report by Dr. Hugh Wamble of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary also delivered a positive recommendation, and the Convention allocated a record budget donation to the BJC in that year. In return, the SBC share of board members in the BJC was increased to 18 from 15, giving them one-third of the seats on the Committee. These members were authorized to function as a separate "Public Affairs Committee" (PAC), and proceeded to pass a number of resolutions on matters they knew could not be supported by the BJC, such as the Bork nomination.
The PAC then requested to conduct a two-day evaluation of the staff. Instead, the BJC executive committee, composed of other denominational representatives and the PAC, voted to conduct a thorough evaluation that would serve the interests of all represented denominations, the PAC requested a number of documents related to staff expenses and compensation. The BJC complied on a number of requests, but refused to provide access to confidential staff correspondence and individual expense accounts. After these meetings and losing these critical votes, the PAC voted separately to cut ties with the BJC.
Although the PAC protested that they merely were trying to exercise accountability, C.J. Malloy Jr., of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, had this to say about the PAC effort:
For a new group of personalities to come in and vote against every proposal was unfortunate. If they were seeking to get information, they went about it in a rather intimidating way. I feel it was more a personal attack [on the staff] than seeking to get information.
In 1988, at the fall meeting of the SBC Executive Committee, the group recommended in a 42 to 27 vote that a competing Religious Liberty Commission be established in Washington. James Dunn, who was not invited to the hearing, called the process "shabby, unfair, unethical, and improper," He asserted that the BJC would not compromise their principles for what he termed "a mess of politically tainted pottage."
In 1989, a motion failed by 6,034 to 5,198 to give $350,000 of the BJC's funding to the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. At the same meeting, there was a tense exchange between James Dunn and the PAC chairman, Samuel T. Currin. Currin charged the BJC as soliciting $100,000 to $200,000 in funding outside their constitution. Dunn replied: "There are those whose mentality is so conspiratorial, so dark and manipulatively political that they cannot imagine the groundswell of support that has come to the Baptist Joint Committee simply because our funding was cut in San Antonio last year.... They didn't ask if they could, if they should, if we would take it. But I am just like anybody who has an agency responsibility—I haven't sent a single check back. But I have not been soliciting funds." In the same space, Dunn indicated that the Committee could be provided with a list of their new contributors arranged by category, but they would not name individual donors to prevent them from being added to the SBC leadership's "hit list.
In 1990, the SBC reduced the BJC budget to $50,000, an 87% decrease over its previous levels of funding. A year later, at the 1991 annual meeting, all funding to the BJC was abolished in an amendment from Fred Minix of Virginia.
After the SBC withdrew its financial support, the Baptist Joint Committee received donations directly from several Southern Baptist state conventions, local churches, and individuals. The agency's other supporting bodies also helped make up the financial difference.
In 2005, the BJC name was changed to the "Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty" to more accurately reflect their singular focus on religious liberty issues.
The Baptist Joint Committee celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011 and released a special edition of Report from the Capital highlighting the history of the organization.
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