Senate Hearing Reveals Divide on Religious Liberty

This week Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) chaired a hearing on religious liberty threats in the U.S. and abroad. It quickly became apparent that there were very different views among the senators in attendance and the panelists speaking before the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In his opening statement, Cruz declared, “The purpose of today’s hearing is to learn what happens when an assault on religious liberty reaches its logical conclusion. To attack religious liberty is to attack the dignity of a person. It is to deny him or her equal citizenship and to erode that which makes us free.”

Cruz expressed concern with tyrannical regimes’ disregard for religious freedom, as well as negativity toward it in powerful sectors of America’s culture. He lamented the difficulty in having true dialogue in our nation about this core liberty, and said, “We need candor and we need resolve if we are going to identify and stop these abuses.”

The top Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asserted her own view that she was less concerned about the free exercise of religion than what she believes to be religious profiling and persecution in the U.S. and the rise of “a school of thought that weaponizes religious liberty.” She specifically targeted the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby victory over government coercion and the Masterpiece Cakeshop victory against government hostility to religion. She also challenged Trump administration efforts to defend religious liberty and a relevant judicial opinion of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Regarding the Hobby Lobby ruling and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was the underpinning for it, Cruz declared, “25 years ago RFRA enjoyed bipartisan, near unanimous support… One of the saddest days I’ve seen in the Senate was in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, every single Senate Democrat voting to gut the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - to take away the protections of religious liberty.” (More on that July 2014 vote here). Hirono countered with supportive comments for the so-called Do No Harm Act, which would preclude RFRA from being considered in a broad array of legal cases. Hirono suggested this bill, sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), “would restore RFRA’s original intent to protect religious freedom without inflicting harm on others.”

Assembled before the committee were Dr. Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute; Dr. Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid; and Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Disagreement between Farr and Tyler were evident on the purpose of the First Amendment’s clauses, as well as the Johnson Amendment. Farr stated his belief that America’s Founders would want religion in our public life and he particularly countered Tyler’s emphasis on the Establishment Clause as a balance to the Free Exercise Clause. He insisted the Establishment Clause was actually intended “to protect the free exercise of religion.”

The full hearing video and written testimony are available here.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: October 5, 2018

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