When the federal government adopted a religious protection act in 1993, same-sex marriage was not on the horizon.
An informal coalition of liberals and conservatives endorsed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it seemed to protect members of vulnerable religious minorities from punishment for the exercise of their beliefs. The federal legislation was set off by a case involving Native Americans who were fired and denied unemployment benefits because they took part in ceremonies with peyote, an illegal drug.
Twenty states, including Indiana last week, have since passed their own versions of religious freedom laws.
But over time, court decisions and conservative legal initiatives started to change the meaning of those laws, according to liberal activists. The state laws were not used to protect minorities, these critics say, but to allow some religious groups to undermine the rights of women, gays and lesbians or other groups.
“The coalition broke apart over the civil rights issues,” said Eunice Rho, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization, which initially supported the measures, now opposes them unless they include language ensuring that they will not be used to permit discrimination or harm.
In the 1990s, for example, in the kind of case that raised red flags for civil rights advocates, landlords cited religious beliefs, sometimes with success in court, after refusing to rent to unmarried heterosexual couples.
The clash of values erupted again after Indiana adopted its own version of a “religious freedom” act last week. Arkansas is expected to approve a similar law this week.
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