Director of the Richard & Helen Devos Center for Religion & Civil Society

The Institute for Family, Community, & Opportunity

Emilie Kao, director of our Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, led Heritage’s ongoing campaign to fight back against attacks on religious liberty in the U.S. and abroad.

Defending Religious Liberty; Improving School Safety

Severe religious persecution is all too common in foreign countries. But “progressive” policies are now starting to threaten religious liberty closer to home.

Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, plus four other states and Washington, D.C., now bar faith-based agencies from providing adoption and foster care services if they refuse to go along with the governments’ redefinitions of marriage and biological sex, thereby abandoning their belief that every child deserves both a mother and father.

State and local governments are misusing anti-discrimination laws to coerce private citizens to affirm sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). Local bureaucrats have punished business owners like Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips and adoption agencies run by Catholic Charities. The DeVos Center has educated members of Congress and the public about the dangers of these laws at the state and federal level.

Leading the charge is Emilie Kao, a Harvard Law School graduate and member of the Supreme Court Bar. Before joining Heritage as director of our DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society, Kao compiled an impressive résumé defending victims of religious persecution—globally at the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

In 2018, Kao led a coalition of religious liberty and child welfare organizations to protect faith-based adoption and foster care. Together, the coalition raised the profile of those victimized by anti-religion policies. They told compelling stories of birth mothers, adoptive and foster parents, and children—to the media, members of Congress, and Trump administration officials. And they spoke directly to the American people through the website KeepKidsFirst.com as well as at several public events.

Working together, the coalition built support for the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which was later incorporated into the House version of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill. Their efforts also helped bring to nine the number of states that have passed laws guaranteeing the freedom of faith-based child welfare providers to serve in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In 2018, the DeVos Center played a part in two major Supreme Court victories. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court ruled that Colorado’s mistreatment of a Christian baker who declined to create a custom cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding demonstrated “clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection.” In National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, the Court ruled that California could not force a pro-life pregnancy center to tell its clients where they could obtain free abortions.

Fighting for a Workable Health Care System

As our Domestic Policy Studies team led the conservative movement on the path forward to health care reform, they also had to counter bad policy proposals from the Left and even some from congressional Republicans.

In the spring of 2018, a proposal to bail out Obamacare emerged from the Republican caucus. Our analysts argued vigorously that the bailouts would simply prop up the worst parts of Obamacare. The failing program needed to be replaced, not put on life-support. Despite heavy lobbying by insurers, the proposal soon died.

Meanwhile, the Left renewed its push for a single payer system, this time in the guise of “Medicare for All.” Heritage analysts parried by exposing the weaknesses of that approach. Heritage enters 2019 well prepared to rebut ideas like “Medicare for All,” which will likely be a centerpiece of the Left’s ramped-up efforts in the next two years.

Recognizing that conservatives can’t fight bad health care ideas with “nothing,” Heritage Domestic Policy Director Marie Fishpaw worked to unite conservative leaders around the Health Care Choices Proposal, a consensus reform plan designed to pass muster in Congress and be signed into law.

That plan, unveiled in June, is the most specific, free-market-oriented health care reform plan put forth in years. It would free patients from many cost-increasing federal regulations, allowing them the flexibility needed to access more insurance choices, lower premiums and higher quality health care—all while protecting those with pre-existing conditions. And it would give everyone who receives a government subsidy to buy health care the ability to apply it to private coverage of their choice—unlike today, where government officials make that decision for them.

Can health reform really deliver these results? We know for a fact it can. In 2018, premiums for Obamacare’s lowest-priced policies rose 16 percent nationwide. Yet premiums fell by as much as 38.7 percent in the two states that had waivers from Obamacare’s mandates.

Heritage was influential in making that freedom available to the states. And after reviewing our research—and seeing these early, cost-saving results—the Trump administration has now granted waivers to five more states.

Others hope to follow suit. Even deep-blue Maryland passed a law seeking a federal waiver from Obamacare to stabilize the state’s insurance private markets, reduce premiums, and still protect the vulnerable.

“We can get better outcomes from our healthcare system at a lower cost by putting patients, not the government, in charge.” So said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a July 26 speech in Allison Auditorium. Following his lecture, Azar met privately with members of the Heritage-led Health Care Consensus Group, which is building support for free-market-oriented health care reform plan.

Working to Win The War on Poverty

America’s welfare system fails the people it’s intended to serve. And so, Heritage continues to promote work and marriage, the two most effective anti-poverty programs ever devised. We also work to help conservatives learn how to better counter the emotionally appealing rhetoric of the welfare industry.

In January, the House Republican Conference invited Kay Coles James to speak about effective welfare reform “messaging” at their annual retreat. It was the first time a Heritage president had been invited to the event, and James delivered a powerful speech on “Welfare Solutions.” It led to a series of follow-up conversations with lawmakers about how to talk about this often difficult topic.

Meanwhile, Heritage Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector, a key architect of the successful welfare reforms of 1996, continued his decades-long quest to help more Americans escape dependence on government assistance. He and Heritage quantitative analyst Jamie Bryan Hall published a paper on how to encourage work in the food stamp program, which influenced thinking within the Trump administration.

Throughout the year, Rector worked to keep discussions of welfare and poverty informed and honest. His backgrounder, “Understanding the Hidden $1.1 Trillion Welfare System and How to Reform It,” documented just how massive the welfare state has become—encompassing 89 separate programs spread across 14 federal departments and agencies.

Rector and Hall also collaborated on a report refuting false claims by U.N. staff that the U.S. faces a problem of extreme poverty. The U.S. delegation at Turtle Bay proudly circulated that report among their counterparts.

Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Heritage convened a “School Safety Teach-In.” The event brought together students, teachers, mental health professionals, and policy experts to talk about policies and programs that could actually prevent school violence.

Making Schools Safer for Students and Teachers

In response to the horrific mass murders at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Heritage launched an organization-wide School Safety Initiative. Its purpose: to identify and promote policies that will actually prevent school shootings and lessen other violence in America’s schools.

Our final recommendations included: equipping students who are direct victims of violence or are assigned to persistently dangerous schools with school choice options, such as education savings accounts or a “safe student scholarship;” ensuring mental health services are accessible; holding school systems accountable for spending existing funds designated for school safety programs as intended; and removing federal directives that inhibit local school leaders’ ability to maintain safe learning environments.

Our Center for Education Policy was deeply involved in this inter-departmental research effort. One of the center’s earliest recommendations was that the Department of Education eliminate an Obama-era directive that threatened schools with a federal investigation if there were any racial disparities in their suspension and expulsion rates. The “disparate impact” policy was modeled after the one pioneered in Parkland schools.

Interviews with students and teachers revealed that the directive had tied the hands of school personnel, fostering tremendous discipline problems. Many violent students no longer feared punishment, leaving other students and their teachers feeling less safe in halls and classrooms.

Thankfully, the Trump administration acted on our recommendation, withdrawing the misguided directive in late 2018.

As the year came to a close, Center for Education Policy Director Lindsey Burke, along with Vice President Jennifer Marshall, published a paper highlighting an underused provision in the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act). It gives students the right to leave failing schools that are found to be “persistently dangerous.”

As Burke and Marshall noted, even though states were entrusted with identifying these schools, many did not. Among those jurisdictions failing to do so: Washington, D.C., where students suffer one of the highest rates of school violence in America. Getting states to live up to their responsibilities under the act will be a top priority for Heritage’s School Safety Initiative in 2019.  

Other Education Advances in 2018

Military Education
Savings Accounts

Our Center for Education Policy moved this innovative idea from the drawing board to actual legislation introduced in both the House and the Senate. Although the House bill failed to advance beyond the Rules Committee, Heritage has now anchored the school choice coalition around this idea and laid the groundwork to advance the policy further in 2019.

529 College
Savings Plans

529 college savings plans can now be used to pay for K-12 private school tuition—a policy Heritage has long supported.

Free Speech

Thanks in large part to work by Senior Policy Analyst Jonathan Butcher, free speech made a comeback on college campuses. Arizona strengthened its campus free speech law, as did Georgia—both following Butcher’s free speech model.