In the wake of court rulings on same-sex marriage, political observers and journalists have been connecting the dots between religious groups and political conservatives, and many conclude that religious liberty has emerged as the new rallying cry for the religious right.
In addition to same-sex marriage, they say, Obamacare's contraception mandate, reports of a crackdown on Christian-speak in the armed services and a growing trend of local anti-discrimination ordinances protecting the LGBT community are the new battles in a longstanding culture war that had historically targeted religious expression in schools and on government property.
The latest news report analyzing this new conservative strategy came from BuzzFeed political writer McKay Coppins, who spoke to GOP politicians and activists and learned that prominent Republicans have spent the past year reframing the conservative social agenda.
"In speeches, interviews, and op-eds, savvy culture warriors have abandoned the fervent rhetoric of the ’80s and ’90s that used to cast conservatives as champions of virtue, enemies of vice, and saviors of American society: That battle, many conservatives conceded to BuzzFeed, is lost. Instead, their new message centers on ensuring that the rights of religious institutions and believers aren’t trampled under a stampede of secularism."
A week earlier, Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, traced the change to November 2009 and the unveiling of the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, signed by 150 Christian right religious and political leaders.
"The document is a statement of shared principles and a common approach to politics and public policy for the foreseeable future. It focuses on three interrelated values: 'sanctity of life,' 'traditional marriage,' and 'religious freedom.' Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, (the declaration) calls for 'resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.’ ”
While both Coppins and Clarkson couched their analyses in political terms — strategies to reignite voter bases and forge alliances between theologically opposed faith groups — the Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson wrote in the National Review that threats to religious liberty are real, with same-sex marriage the most eminent.
His piece explains a snowball effect of legalizing same-sex marriage that has already started to bury the free speech and exercise rights of those who support traditional marriage.
"Policy should prohibit the government or anyone who receives taxpayers’ dollars from discriminating in employment, licensing, accreditation, or contracting against those who believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Anderson wrote.
Same-sex marriage advocates are using that same language to convince local and state governments to amend their anti-discrimination laws to protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. The latest effort to capture media attention is in San Antonio, where a proposed ordinance would prohibit the government appointment of someone who showed any past bias in "word or deed" against a gay person.
But the lead sponsor of the ordinance, City Councilman Diego Bernal, has agreed to remove the "word or deed" language because of the firestorm of opposition it caused. But he told MediaMatters.org that he could still vote against an appointee based on something the person said or did relating to sexual orientation.
"I can do that without that provision. I can not vote for you because I don't like your shoes," Barnal said. "That's sort of the discretion authority that the council already has. And it's the current law."
A proliferation of anti-discrimination ordinances was predicted by the Heritage Foundation's Thomas Messner, who in 2008 wrote a detailed analysis of the challenges same-sex marriage will pose for religious liberty. The lengthy piece reads like a white paper for traditional marriage proponents, warning them of inescapable social and legal conflicts surfacing when marriage is redefined.
"The conflict between same-sex marriage and religious liberty is due in part to how deeply intertwined the concept of marriage is in our civil law and how integrated religious individuals and institutions are in our society," he wrote. "Civil marriage is a legal concept that pervades the laws, regulations, and policies of the federal, state, and local governments and significantly affects the rights of married individuals and the duties due them by other parties. At the same time, religious individuals and institutions participate in all areas of public life, including in the public arena as government contractors and public employees and public school students and also in the private sector as professionals and charities and small businesses."
But conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote that religious liberty advocates should consider negotiating a truce with same-sex marriage proponents soon or else risk losing any protections for religious freedom at the end of a protracted legal and political battle.
"If religious conservatives are, in effect, negotiating the terms of their surrender," he wrote in his New York Times blog, "it’s at least possible that those negotiations would go better if they were conducted right now, in the wake of a Roe v. Wade-style Supreme Court ruling, rather than in a future where the bloc of Americans opposed to gay marriage has shrunk from the current 44 percent to 30 percent or 25 percent, and the incentives for liberals to be magnanimous in victory have shrunk apace as well."