Lovers of Religious Liberty Will Find Scant Comfort in the New Democratic Party Platform
Or in Hillary Clinton's shifting views on the issue.
On religious liberty the Democrats and their presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, have ventured far from where they were in November 1993.
Then President Bill Clinton heartily endorsed and signed into law the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by a simple voice vote in the House and a 97-3 roll call vote in the Senate. Both of those chambers, by the way, had solid Democratic majorities at the time.
Before signing the legislation, President Clinton said, “Our laws and institutions should not impede or hinder but rather should protect and preserve fundamental religious liberties.”
Times, apparently, have changed: On July 25, 2016, Hillary Clinton told leading gay issues magazine The Advocate she opposed laws protecting the free exercise of individual religious conscience: “The concerted effort underway in a number of states to discriminate against LGBT people under the guise of protecting religious freedom is something very different. It’s insincere and insidious. And we shouldn’t let it stand,” she said.
“We support a progressive vision of religious freedom that respects pluralism and rejects the misuse of religion to discriminate.” 2016 Democratic Party Platform.
In saying this, Clinton is echoing the official 2016 Democratic Party platform. The document, approved by the group’s platform committee on July 8-9, 2016, and published July 21, reads in part: “We will oppose all state efforts to discriminate against LGBT individuals, including legislation that restricts the right to access public spaces. We support a progressive vision of religious freedom that respects pluralism and rejects the misuse of religion to discriminate.” (2016 Democratic Party Platform, page 19.)
For Democrats, that’s about the only mention of “religious freedom” in their platform. Unlike the party’s 2012 document, which apparently excised any mention of the Deity, the 2016 version mentions “God” three times, but each in the context of individuals’ “God-given potential.”
Six of the seven mentions of “religion” in the full 2016 platform merely include the word in a list of characteristics over which Democrats reject discrimination. No mention of any positive role religion plays in society is made in the document.
The 2016 Democratic Party platform makes no mention of the First Amendment, and thus avoids discussing the First Amendment Defense Act, co-sponsored by two Republican lawmakers: Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee, and Idaho’s Rep. Raúl Labrador. FADA, as the bill is known, merely blocks federal actions against individuals and institutions on the basis of their religious beliefs about marriage. Critics claim this offers a “cover” for discrimination against homosexuals, while supporters of the bill says it would protect those who hold any faith-related view of marriage.
Clinton, again speaking to The Advocate, blasted the notion of FADA being signed into law, which GOP nominee Donald J. Trump has said he would do.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Clinton said of Trump’s promise. “Allowing people to use their personal religious beliefs as grounds for discrimination against LGBT people in the public sphere goes against everything we stand for. And I know a lot of deeply religious people who agree with me.”
According to Religion News Service reporter Kimberly Winston, the 2016 Democratic platform also contains strong language in support of “access to … safe and legal abortion,” along with a pledge to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of the procedure. Winston also reported that the 2016 platform omits support for any exemption allowing physicians and others to refuse to perform or assist in an abortion if doing so would go against their religious beliefs. The 2012 Democratic platform contained such an affirmation for a conscience exemption.
Earlier in her career, Hillary Clinton’s view of religious freedom was far more inclusive of those who might disagree with redefining marriage or other social issues. Speaking before a dinner sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association in April 2005, Clinton, then the junior United States Senator from New York, specifically praised the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which sponsors the IRLA, for its work in defending religious freedom.
The then-Senator also said part of America’s greatness came because “we’ve always cherished that space between economic activity, public governmental activity — that space where most of life takes place, the space of family, the space of faith, the space of associations, the space of religion and speech.”
“As we hold up the importance of religious liberty, we have to take both words in that phrase to heart: religion and liberty,” she said at the time.
In her more recent interviews, Clinton hasn’t explained what caused the change of heart about protecting the religious expression of those who disagree on issues such as the definition of marriage. But in advance of her acceptance speech Thursday night, it is clear she is lining up with the stated position of the Democratic party.
Mark A. Kellner, a journalist in Salt Lake City, Utah, has written about issues of faith and freedom for The Washington Times, the Deseret News and Religion News Service.