The powerful Liberals Against Religious Freedom “lobby” is once again promoting the power of government to punish believers after Indiana became the 20th state to pass a version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The left successfully blocked a similar law in Arizona last year, but now the Arkansas Legislature has also passed its version of it. Changes to the laws were approved in both states Thursday to clarify that they would not allow religion claims to be used to discriminate against certain groups.. A Maine version (L.R. 1267 in draft form) is pending in Augusta.

The federal RFRA was passed in 1993 to restore a long-standing interpretation of religious liberty after the Supreme Court had voided it in a 1990 case involving Native American beliefs.

The law, sponsored by then-Rep. (now Sen.) Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was passed without objection in the House and by 97-3 in the Senate, and was signed by President Bill Clinton.

But in 1997, the court ruled that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not apply to states, so some began passing their own versions. Even then-state Sen. Barack Obama voted for one in Illinois.

The federal act featured heavily in the court’s decision last year in the Hobby Lobby case, where the family-owned company was protected against offering abortion-causing drugs as part of Obamacare.

State laws, however, have never been used successfully to defend against charges of discrimination in civil cases, and the Indiana statute merely allows people to raise religious concerns as a defense. Judges and juries still would have to decide if they apply.

It also says the government must prove a “compelling interest” and its remedies are the “least restrictive” measures available before it can override religious beliefs.

What liberals want is to make that impossible, to support a cause that now permits no dissention.

Believers might be wondering why, if they find few allies among Republican leaders, should they offer the party any reciprocal support? However, note that several top Republican presidential candidates have spoken up for the law, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry and Ted Cruz.

Still, what civil rights attorney David French has called a “hatestorm” persuaded Republican Govs. Mike Pence of Indiana and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas to move to “clarify” the civil-suit issue.

In a editorial, the conservative journal National Review examined the reasons for the sudden furor: “The first is political: Democrats, unhappily laboring under the largest Republican congressional majority since before the New Deal, are looking to pick fights over issues such as gay rights, abortion and environmental regulation, believing that this will help their fund-raising and invigorate their demoralized partisans.

“(And) Indiana’s law, like some other state RFRAs … expressly states that it allows religious practice to be raised as a defense not only when the government is a party to the controversy but also in litigation undertaken by private parties under state law — including laws that prohibit discrimination against homosexuals. Which is to say, this is another skirmish in the endless battle of the Big Gay Wedding Cake.”

Some opponents say that’s a departure from the federal law, which applies only to government actions. Another objection is that the new law applies to companies as well as individuals, but that horse left the barn when the court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that religious owners of “closely held” corporations have rights, too.

After all, if corporations can’t have First Amendment rights, where does that leave newspapers?

Indeed, some of the law’s strongest critics include corporate owners such as Apple’s Tim Cook, who objected on his company’s behalf even as it sells its products in countries where homosexuality is illegal and sometimes punishable by death.

When President Clinton signed the federal RFRA 22 years ago, he said, “Let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us respect one another’s faiths, and fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice the convictions he or she has.”

So far, the law has protected the rights of Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, Sikhs and many others to follow their faiths, arousing no liberal objections. Christians seem to be another matter, however.

Certainly, anyone should have a right to routine service from a business.

But it is quite different to demand a highly personal service that requires artistic and creative talents by threatening fines, imprisonment and the loss of one’s livelihood. Americans deserve strong protections against that, even beyond what these laws might — or might not — provide.

As Greg Scott of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which assists defendants in such cases, said recently, “A government that has the power to tell you what you can’t say is bad enough. A government that tells you what you must say in order to avoid ruin is terrifying.”

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. Email at: [email protected].


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