The national debate over an Indiana religious-liberties law seen as anti-gay has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.

Most top Republican presidential hopefuls this week have moved in lock step, and without pause, to support Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) and his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has prompted protests and national calls for boycotts by major corporations…

“This is another case where the Iowa caucus beckons,” veteran GOP strategist John Weaver said. “Politically, it’s a difficult issue for a general election. After watching the Romney campaign in 2012, a lot of people said, ‘Do no harm to your general-election chances while trying to win the nomination.’ Having said that, you have to win the nomination first.”

As Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host in Iowa, put it: “This is the first litmus test of the race. Everyone in the party is watching to see how the candidates respond. For evangelicals, this is the fundamental front of culture issues.”

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Webb aside, it’s now expected for Democrats to denounce RFRAs, just as large corporations are denouncing them. In doing so, all of the critics are on the wrong side of public polling. According to a March edition of the Marist poll, 54 percent of Americans agreed with  “allowing First Amendment religious liberty protection or exemptions for faith based organizations and individuals even when it conflicts with government laws.” By a two-point margin, 47-45, even a plurality of Democratic voters agreed with that.

The margins were even larger in opposition to laws that proposed “penalties or fines for individuals who refuse to provide wedding-related services to same sex couples even if their refusal is based on their religious beliefs.” No Democrat is seriously proposing this; the nearest cultural analogue may be the story of Memories Pizza, the Indiana shop whose owner said that he would decline to provide pies to gay weddings, and saw its Yelp! page firebombed with angry comments. (The popularity of delivery pizza at gay wedding ceremonials is well known.) Still, according to Marist, Americans oppose penalties on businesses like Memories by a 65-31 margin. The margin among Democrats: 62-34 against.

Republican presidential candidates may have gotten over their skis, and backed the current version of the Indiana law before Pence (and Hutchinson) started scrambling to change it. Democrats are endorsing something more radical than voters are comfortable with. They’re betting on gay rights — the lens through which the RFRAs are being viewed — winning out. And that’s especially important for Clinton, who was on the “wrong side of history” on gay marriage until it became safe and practical to switch.

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[L]iberals should recognize the limits to and wisdom of injecting state power into every possible relationship in the country. As wrong and stupid as I think it is for a particular individual or business to discriminate against a customer or neighbor based on sexual orientation (or race, gender, and class for that matter), that should be the business’s decision, especially if the business is only one service provider among many.

Nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do, whether it’s bake cakes for gay weddings or decorate cakes with anti-gay slurs. To me, whether a person’s or a business’s decision is based in religion is immaterial.

Whatever you may think of Jack Phillips’s refusal to bake a wedding cake for gay customers, there’s something as or more disturbing about the court ruling against the owner of Lakewood, Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop. Not only was the baker forced to change his store policy, he and his staff were required to attend sensitivity training. That sounds like something out of China during the Cultural Revolution. It doesn’t help that Phillips offered to make the original complainants any sort of item but a wedding cake.

Most Americans don’t agree with Phillips’s beliefs in this case, but such disagreements are one of the prices we pay for living in a free society, in which we seriously recognize and respect that different people have different value systems. It’s worth noting that in the segregated South, very different rules applied. It was common, for instance, that local and state governments and laws actively prevented businesses from treating customers equally. When laws were not openly racist, “citizen’s councils” and terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan enforced a de facto standard against businesses that treated all customers equally. This is not the case today with regards to gays and lesbians.

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The Indiana religious freedom law dust-up reveals that liberals who believe in the sentiment wrongly attributed to Voltaire — “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — have been supplanted by pat-a-cake progressives who demand “Bake me a cake as fast you can.”

In fact, the new social liberals sound a lot like the old social conservatives. We have a public moral code around here and if you don’t comply with it, you’d better keep it to yourself.

When closeted gay marriage opponent Brendan Eich, whose closest friends and coworkers never knew about his surreptitious social deviance, was outed, he lost his job.

Christian sociologist George Yancey has researched what he calls “Christianaphobia.” Here are some of the sentiments he found. “Keep all religion in your church, in your home, out of the public square, and most of all, out of my face,” one survey respondent said. Another stated, “Christian Right people can do what they want in their churches and homes, but not in the public arena.”

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But here’s the thing: if we live in an America that not only permits same-sex marriage and a broad array of gay rights, but also turns any religious dissenters into modern-day Bull Connors, criminalizes our religious practices, anathematizes us in common discourse, and drives us out of the public square — then it will be an open question as to whether this is still an America worth our allegiance.

It may well be. After all, well within living memory, black Americans were treated under law far worse than anything orthodox Christians conceivably face in the near future, and they remained patriotic, believing in the promise of America. Many white Christians — especially in the South — did nothing to relieve their suffering, and in far, far too many cases, exacerbated it. Yet they still believed in America. I met just such a black man last year, a World War II veteran who fought for this country, then came home to the segregated South, where he had to live as a second-class citizen in his own nation. I hope that if I am ever put to the test as that great man was, that I will bear up with as much courage and patience.

The point is, this conflict should not even be conceivable, but the righteous moral fervor of the progressives — including their allies in big business — is driving the country to this precipice, for no good reason.

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Tolerance isn’t the goal. Religious conservatives must atone for their heretical views with acts of contrition: Bake me a cake, photograph my wedding, pay for my abortion and my contraception.

In Georgia, a Catholic school employed a gay teacher. When he announced he was marrying a man, the school said this violated the expectations of public behavior they demand of their teachers. They fired him. Now the Obama administration is coming after the school.

Even in abortion, the Left is tired of long-observed truces. The Hyde Amendment, which for decades has restricted federal funding of abortion providers while never intruding on the freedom of women to abort their children, is no longer tolerated by the abortion lobby, which even killed a human trafficking bill over it.

As stunning as their ambitions of total victory is their continued pretense to be fighting a defensive war. It should be obvious to all that the Left long ago dropped its love of pluralism and tolerance — if that ever was their goal.

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Were all those converts to gay-marriage bigots before their conversions? Did they deserve to be punished? Consider that Bill Clinton signed, and Hillary Clinton supported, federal laws that blatantly discriminated against gays. As noted, Hillary didn’t announce her support for gay marriage until March 18, 2013. She has, of course, paid no penalty for her influential acts against gay equality. (Far from boycotting her, Governor Malloy of Connecticut endorsed her for president in 2008.)

That’s how it works for elites. As a point of contrast, that small-time Oregon baker refused to bake that cake for a gay wedding on January 13, 2013—weeks before Hillary would endorse a gay couple’s right to even have a wedding. The penalty Oregon recommends for that baker: $150,000. I think Christian bakers should happily bake for gay weddings (I’ve written that Christian photographers should happily photograph them). I don’t think doing so is prohibited by their faith. It’s arguably in keeping with it. I nevertheless see something unjust in that juxtaposition.

In the thick of the fight, when speaking out on behalf of gay marriage could’ve make a significant difference in advancing equality, celebrities weren’t willing to boycott populations on the wrong side of the issue, putting them crosswise of a majority of their fans and their wallets. Corporations weren’t yet exercising their free speech rights as corporate persons to support gay equality while being cheered by progressives who showed no discomfort with such entities engaging in political speech…

Now that public opinion has thankfully shifted, marriage traditionalists have thankfully been routed, gay marriage in all 50 states is thankfully inevitable, and its opponents are a waning minority incapable of imposing any cost on political opponents, elites who support gay marriage are suddenly very self-righteous and assertive. Now that those who would discriminate against gays are a powerless cultural minority that focuses its objectionable behavior in a tiny niche of the economy, elites have suddenly decided that using state power to punish them is a moral imperative. The timing suggests that this has as much to do with opportunism, tribalism, humanity’s love of bandwagons, and political positioning as it does with advancing gay rights, which have advanced thanks to persuasion, not coercion.

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The whole point of freedom of religion is that it protects an extraordinary gamut of differing, frequently conflicting cosmologies, spiritual disciplines, and moral codes.  They may include refusing to fight in defense of the nation, rejecting certain foodstuffs or medical treatments, discouraging young people from secondary or higher education, honoring celibacy or condemning a variety of sexual practices, sacrificing animals, drinking alcohol, or ingesting hallucinogens for ritual purposes, prescribing certain head coverings or hairstyles despite school or occupational rules, insisting on distinct roles for men and women, withdrawing from friends and family for lives of silence and seclusion, marching in prayer through neighborhoods on holy days, preaching on street corners or otherwise trying to convert others to these persuasions. 

A great many of these beliefs and practices I disagree with.  Some I deplore. Religious freedom means I live with the fundamentalists who describe the pope as anti-Christ and my kind as hell-bound—and with the black nationalist sects who consider me a white devil.  Religious freedom means that I don’t have to send my children to the state schools if I choose not to nor does my Darwin-phobic neighbor.  It also means state schools or state events or state laws should not force people to participate in religious rituals or practices contrary to their consciences.

Religious freedom means that I may very well want to question, critique, refute, moderate or otherwise alter religious beliefs and practices that I find irrational or unhealthy or dehumanizing or, yes, bigoted; but knowing how deeply rooted and sincerely held these convictions are, and how much about the universe remains in fact mysterious, and how much about my own perceptions of reality could in fact be mistaken, and how much religions do in fact evolve over time, I accommodate myself in the meantime to peaceful coexistence and thoughtful engagement.  In particular I refuse to coerce religiously sincere people into personal actions that violate their conscience.  And I refuse to dismiss their resistance to such coercion as nothing but bigotry…

All my life liberals took the lead in defending and enlarging freedom of religion.  Now they seem to have shrunk into silence, indifference, or, worse, disparagement.  Contrary examples anyone? 

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