A left-right flip on religious freedom

James Antle documents for The National Interest an interesting change in the politics of religious freedom.

Liberals have come a long way since 1993, when they helped pass—and Bill Clinton signed—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Back then, they were willing to endorse the principle that the government must have a compelling interest in making a person act contrary to her religious conscience—and even then, government must use the least coercive means to further that interest.

Whatever the First Amendment implications of the Hobby Lobby case, it is impossible to argue the contraception mandate meets that test. Large swathes of the American public are already exempt from the mandate, so how compelling could the government interest be? Second, there are ways to make birth control more accessible to women without making religious people pay for it.

Several things have changed in the last twenty-one years. First, the issue that helped give rise to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was the sacramental use of peyote by a Native American church. The Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law forbidding peyote, with conservative Antonin Scalia writing the majority opinion and liberal Harry Blackmun of Roe v. Wade fame authoring the dissent.

Note that both the specific freedom in question and the plaintiff in the case were likely to arouse liberal sympathies. Not so traditionalist Catholics who don’t want to subsidize contraception or evangelicals who don’t want to photograph a same-sex wedding. (One could argue these different circumstances play a role in conservatives taking a different position too.)

White liberals have also become more secular in the last two decades. In 2012, Barack Obama carried 62 percent of voters who never attend church while Mitt Romney took just 34 percent. Liberal mainline Protestant churches have long been in decline. A press release from religious leaders defending the contraception mandate is signed mainly by members of these traditions.

Among a few liberals, this has resulted in an almost comical inability to comprehend what religious practice really entails beyond attendance at worship services or prayer. Others simply view religious people as conservative political opponents with misguided, perhaps even evil and bigoted, views.

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