In a recent column, David French reminds us that not so long ago, “religious liberty lawyers were a quirky, somewhat cool, and tiny subset of the legal profession.” They were defending the rights of home-school families and the religious rights of Native American Indians. You could fit the “entire religious–liberty bar in a single mid-sized hotel conference room.”
That is no longer true today. He calls these conservative religious-liberties lawyers the “virtual Seal Team Six of the culture war, with multiple organizations raising collectively close to $200 million annually to do battle in courtrooms from coast to coast.” One lawyer on my radio program said he was going to frame this piece because it will be the only time someone will compare him to a Seal Team member.
The broader point is that America has changed. A few decades ago, you could assume that the US was largely a single-faith culture. Today it is a two-faith nation: the sacred and the secular. That is why religious liberties are so controversial. The secular world sees any attempt to provide a space for religion as a zero-sum game.
One illustration is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that passed a few decades ago with only three dissenting votes. Chuck Schumer introduced it into the House, while Ted Kennedy introduced it to the Senate. Bill Clinton signed it into law, with virtually no controversy.
Now Representatives Joe Kennedy and Bobby Scott along with Senator Kamala Harris have reintroduced legislation to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The “Do No Harm Act” would prevent individuals from getting a religious exemption from many of our federal laws.
Religious liberty wasn’t very controversial a few decades ago. Today it has become a major flashpoint in the culture wars.