Religious Liberty: Not Just for Social Conservatives

The worst way to approach American civil liberties is to support or oppose them based on your limited understanding of who, exactly, will benefit from freedom. In recent months, a populist and nationalist segment of the conservative intellectual world has been re-evaluating longstanding First Amendment doctrines that grant private citizens “viewpoint neutral” access to public facilities (a legal term for describing equal access for everyone, regardless of their religion or ideology) because very small numbers of drag queens have started exercising the same liberties that thousands of Christian churches and student groups have used to hold worship services and bible studies in schools, libraries, and other public buildings. 

Not content with contesting events like “drag queen story hour” in the marketplace of ideas, they’d limit freedom for everyone rather than see a small number of Americans exercise liberty in a way they don’t like. 

At the same time, a former rock-solid Democratic commitment to religious liberty has eroded into what often amounts to outright opposition. Why? Because religious liberty is increasingly seen not as the last line of defense for marginalized American faith communities, but rather as a legal weapon wielded against gay Americans by conservative bigots. Again, because the liberty is exercised in a way that its previous advocates don’t like, its previous advocates have now become opponents. And so a law—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—they once sponsored, supported, and signed is derided as an oppressive relic of a less enlightened past. An increasingly secular party wonders why people of faith should enjoy any special protection under the law. 

In reality however, when each party rejects the liberty of their opponents, they undermine the liberty of their allies. Conversely, when their enemies win, their friends win as well. 

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