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Democrats’ Complicated Past with Religious Freedom


Thirty years ago, only conspiracies would allude to where our country is today. With late-term abortions touted by national leaders, favoritism of Marxist-based initiatives, and all but subtle violations of religious liberty becoming routine, it almost makes one wish for the politics of yesterday.

When it came to religious liberty just a few decades ago, bipartisan support was normal.

Fast forward to today, Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House are aggressively trying to pass the Equality Act, legislation that would severely undermine religious freedom across the faith spectrum.

This is causing Democrats to face the awkward reality that they, too, once enthusiastically supported religious freedom. After all, the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which has since served as a pillar for religious liberty victories at the Supreme Court, was sponsored by, voted for by, endorsed by, and signed into law by Democrats.

Indeed, the 1993 bill was spearheaded by a younger New York representative by the name of Charles “Chuck” Schumer, abetted by a heavy Democrat majority in the House. The House passed the RFRA unanimously, and the Democrat-controlled Senate sent it to President Clinton’s desk with a 97-3 vote. Suffice to say, Democrats seemed quite on board with religious freedom, with Clinton stating,

What (the RFRA) basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never — we can never — be too vigilant in this work.

Nearly 30 years later, the same party is singing a significantly different tune and the young rep from New York, now the Senate majority leader, is faced with a new challenge. Sen. Schumer is trying to pass a polar opposite bill with a not-so-heavy majority as he had in 1993. Democrats in today’s Congress, over 30 of whom supported the RFRA in 1993, are pushing for the Equality Act — a bill that expressly exempts the RFRA.

The challenge Democrats currently face lies within their own success.

They accomplished their goal of advancing religious freedom in 1993, but such advancement backfired on Democrats when the RFRA protected conservatives at the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and served as a platform for many state-level religious freedom laws that favor conservatism.

But Democrats today, particularly RFRA supporters who are still in office, attempt to reconcile this deviation by saying that the RFRA was not intended to enable discrimination but rather to protect smaller religions from government overreach, citing Employment Division v. Smith (1990) as an example of why the protection is needed. In Smith, the Supreme Court ruled that states could deny unemployment benefits to those who violate state prohibitions, which, in this case, was the use of peyote as a sacrament in Native American ceremonies.

In other words, Democrats tout religious freedom when it comes to ceremonial elements, but when it comes to deeply held doctrinal positions on sexuality and life, these beliefs are no longer deemed worthy of protection.

To compensate for their inadvertent success in 1993, the Democrats’ Equality Act says that the RFRA cannot be used as a claim when religious discrimination occurs as a result of its implementation, nor can it be used as a defense when sued for following religious tenets not in line with the mandate of the Equality Act.

The irony of their defense is fascinating. They say that they are protecting “the little guy from the big guy,” but laws aren’t made to protect a minority at the expense of the majority. That is, if a law is installed to protect religious minorities, the same protections would be applied to religious majorities. After all, what happens when the minority religion grows to the point where it has become a commonly practiced faith group in the U.S.? Is it no longer protected?

What really happened here is that Democrats exploited religious minorities to push a narrative in the form of a bill — a bill that backfired and forced them to draft their redemptive Equality Act.

While the Equality Act is almost certainly not passible, at least in its current draft, the enthusiasm behind it should be concerning. The Equality Act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add sexual orientation and gender identity to currently protected classes such as race, age, and national origin.

Realistically speaking, this will do nothing to advance LGBT employment rights. LGBT people are already protected from workplace discrimination in non-sectarian settings. The only employers who will be impacted by this are private, faith-based organizations that require their employees to adhere to their statements of faith — and LGBT people aren’t likely to pursue careers at these organizations anyway unless to intentionally instigate legal action. As we’ve seen in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, attacking one’s religious beliefs at the expense of their livelihood is not beyond the purview of the left.

This article is part of the Standing for Freedom Center’s Spring journal, Equality: A Dream for Patriots, a Mask for Tyranny.