Op-ed by Val Benavidez: We’re Fighting for Religious Freedom While the Far Right Weaponizes It

Texas Signal Op-ed

As executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, I know fighting for a Texas that’s truly for all demands that I reserve a deep well of hope. Yet, I feel the frustration so many have as the right continues to use “religious freedom” as a weapon to advance a radical political agenda.

As the watchdogs of the radical right in Texas, we’ve spent almost 30 years fighting for our freedoms, preserving the separation between church and state, and uplifting the communities that are so often the targets of hate and cruelty: Black and Brown people, LGBTQIA+ children and adults, women, public school educators, survivors of gun violence, undocumented Texans, underpaid families, and anyone who doesn’t fit into the religious right’s narrow window of acceptance.

Now we find ourselves at the beginning of yet another legislative session in which our state’s “leaders” are using religion to divide us and hurt people who are different.

We only need to look at a few of the bills already filed to know that our wells of hope will need to grow deeper and deeper to continue protecting our freedoms—freedom to learn an honest and accurate history, control our own bodies, breathe clean air, safely go to school, and freedom from and for religion.

This legislative session, radical legislators say they’re using their faith to guide political decisions, but their proposed new laws do not follow the teachings present in any religious scriptures I know.

Redefining the definition of child abuse to include gender-affirming care and ripping transgender kids from their loving families—thrusting them into the state’s crumbling foster care system—is guided by hate, not love.

Stripping us of our right to access abortion—our ability to control our own bodies and be the architects of our own futures—is not about empathy. It’s about upholding racist, inequitable systems. It’s about restricting basic healthcare. It’s about anti-queerness—because we know that it’s not just women who need abortion care. It’s about misogyny. It’s about control.

These same legislators are trying to turn us against public schools and teachers. Their goal is to keep us from coming together to demand that public schools get the resources they need to provide every child with a quality education. Instead, these legislators want to pass voucher schemes that divert tax dollars from neighborhood public schools—those that educate the vast majority of Texas kids—to subsidize exclusive private and religious schools that have no public accountability. Religious schools that teach sectarian perspectives that are certainly not shared by all of the taxpayers who would be forced to subsidize them.

Clearly, there is much confusion about what religious freedom actually is, but I can tell you plainly what it is not. It does not mean the government gets to take away our basic human rights because extremists-turned-lawmakers chose religion as their inflection point to ignite their base with fear and falsehoods.

In a state where we’re constantly fighting the far right’s weaponization of faith, it’s easier to point to violations of religious freedom, and harder to find examples of it being upheld.

So, let me tell you very plainly what religious freedom is: A foundational value that commands that we have the right to practice the faith of our choice, or none at all, free of government interference or involvement.

Many Texans are guided by their faith and come from all different backgrounds and belief systems—but love, kindness, and acceptance are tenets most share. I know this deeply through our close work with communities of faith who belong to our Just Texas program, which empowers faith leaders and religious communities to advocate for LGBTQIA+ equality, destigmatize abortion, and fight for social justice within their congregations.

How is the religious freedom of communities like Just Texas respected and upheld when lawmakers manipulate faith values to make it unsafe for so many of us, especially LGBTQIA+ Texans, to simply exist in our state? How are these lawmakers living the religious tenets they claim to believe in while blatantly misrepresenting people of faith in Texas?

Religious freedom is one of our founding values as a nation, but it does not mean that politicians should use religion to discriminate.

And while we may find ourselves at a political moment where the far right’s influence over our daily lives feels stronger than ever, we have to remember that extremists stoke fear because it’s the only weapon they have.

They’re terrified of us because they know their reign of cruelty is crumbling as we continue building our movement and empowering our communities to fight back. So today I’m calling on every Texan to fight alongside us during this historic opportunity we’ve been given to build the futures we deserve.

This session, fill your well of hope with me. Call your legislators and remind them that they work for you. Organize within your own community. Testify at the Capitol. Rally alongside us.

Together, we can prove that love and compassion are stronger than hate.

Together, we can take back religious freedom for all.

Op-ed by Val Benavidez, originally published by Texas Signal

Val Benavidez is the president and executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. She is responsible for the development, planning, staffing, and implementation of all programs. Val became president in November 2020 and was previously the Texas Freedom Network’s chief program officer. Read Val’s full bio.