Freedom of Religion

Free Association for Me, Not Thee

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In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), thus ensuring the federal government would have to show a "compelling interest" before it could enforce a law infringing on the practice of religion. Six years later, then–Gov. George W. Bush, who was vying to replace Clinton at the White House, sought to put a statewide law on the books that would do the same in Texas. But as Steve France explained in the July 1999 issue of reason ("Establishment Pause"), liberal groups and politicians—who had roundly celebrated the federal bill—sang a different tune when it came to Bush's version.

Somewhere between Clinton and Bush, the realization had set in that respecting religious liberty at times means permitting someone to choose not to do business with certain classes of people. RFRAs "could entitle religious landlords, employers, and service providers to ignore laws that bar discrimination against gays, lesbians, and other minorities if those laws conflict with religious doctrines," wrote France. "Unable to tolerate the intolerance of religious conservatives, the [American Civil Liberties Union] has recently jumped ship, abandoning what it once praised as a 'simple and elegant' legislative restoration of traditional First Amendment doctrine."

Liberals' discomfort with letting people of faith decline to do business with gays or lesbians has now exploded into rage at the idea. When Indiana got around to passing an RFRA this year, the reactions came hot and swift. Hillary Clinton tweeted that it was "sad" such a law could "happen today," while Larry King described it as "absurd," "insulting," and "anti-gay." The American Civil Liberties Union condemned it, as did heads of major corporations, including Nike, Apple, Marriott, and Yelp. Some companies threatened to pull their business from Indiana. Performers cancelled tour dates there, and a slew of governors and mayors banned official travel by government employees to the state.

In 1999, France wrote that it was "clear that religious liberty counts for little with liberals when it conflicts with a core part of their agenda." Today, the conviction that people should be made, through government force if necessary, to comply with accepted mores has become even more central to liberalism. It is therefore unsurprising that religious liberty and free association have ceased to be a priority—even to people busily exercising their own right to boycott those they disagree with.