“I’ll hold up my hundred-dollar bill and say, ‘for the first student who can cite me the provision in the Constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state verbatim, I’ll give this hundred dollar bill. … It’s not there. … The protections of the First Amendment protect us from government, not to cause government to persecute us because of our religious beliefs.”
That’s Jeff Mateer, the newly appointed First Assistant Attorney General of Texas. Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Mateer’s appointment to the post on Wednesday. Mateer replaces Chip Roy, who has joined a super PAC supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.
It’s not surprising that Paxton, who won election with the support of religious-right groups and activists, would appoint a foot soldier in the culture wars who rejects the key constitutional principle of separation of church and state (and employs the persecution rhetoric common on the religious right now). Mateer had been serving as general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a Plano-based litigation group that advances the religious right’s agenda in the courts.
The lawyers at First Liberty Institute (formerly Free Market Foundation and then Liberty Institute), are the equivalent of political ambulance chasers. If you’re a social conservative who feels persecuted because, for example, a local ordinance bars you from firing or denying services to people who offend you because they’re gay or transgender, First Liberty Institute wants your case. And it doesn’t matter where you are or, apparently, what your problem is.
Here’s how, for example, the Dallas Morning News describes the group’s efforts to help Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin after her nomination as vice president on the Republican ticket with John McCain in 2008:
“Liberty represented a handful of Alaska state legislators who sought to block the release of a report that said the governor abused her power by pushing for the firing of a state trooper once married to her sister. Liberty’s September 2008 lawsuit was rejected, a decision that was upheld by the Alaska Supreme Court.”
The Morning News also pointed out how Liberty Institute represented a conservative activist who posed as a prostitute in hidden-camera videos used to embarrass the progressive grassroots organization Acorn.
Closer to home, Liberty Institute had a long history supporting social conservatives in the textbook wars at the State Board of Education before spinning off its sister group Texas Values to do that work. In 2009, for example, Liberty Institute’s leader, attorney Kelly Shackelford, boasted that “God unleashed his people” after the group urged the state board to adopt curriculum standards that included creationist attacks on the teaching of evolution:
“It was clear that out of nowhere everything changed on a dime. And when we thought it was over — I mean, it was shocking. But it was God. And we just kind of stood their with our mouth open and said, ‘Praise the Lord.’”
The group also defended the Ector County Independent School District (Odessa) when officials in that West Texas district knowingly adopted a sectarian Bible course curriculum for their public schools. Although Liberty Institute claimed victory in the lawsuit that followed the actions of those officials, the school district actually backed down and agreed to stop using the curriculum and develop an alternative set of instructional materials.
Perhaps Paxton thinks hiring Mateer will help ensure that religious-righters continue to support him as the indicted attorney general faces mounting legal problems. Regardless, expect Mateer to bring his culture-war agenda to his new taxpayer-funded job.
UPADTE, 3.11.2016: We just sent out a press release on Mateer’s appointment.