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William Barr is on the right side of history

Attorney General William Barr’s recent speech on religious liberty delivered at Notre Dame University has stirred controversy in some circles. But upon a full reading — something I would heartily recommend to all — it is either ironic or bewildering that his ideas have done this.

Those who find fault with Barr’s remarks demonstrate a profound deficit in their knowledge of America’s history and its core constitutional commitments. And I don’t mean that the critics fail to understand the late 18th century and the works of men like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry. They don’t even know the actions or views of Bill Clinton.

As a member of the executive committee for the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, I was present on the South Lawn of the White House when President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law on Nov. 16, 1993. The president noted, in the first paragraph of his remarks, that this coalition played “the central role” in “drafting this legislation and working so hard for its passage.”

RFRA was made necessary by a 1990 Supreme Court decision, which devalued the strength of the Free Exercise Clause in a case involving Native Americans and the sacramental use of peyote. But those of us who worked so hard to pass RFRA understood that the decision undermined every faith and broadly bolstered the power of government to interfere with the sincere exercise of religious belief.

RFRA was supported by a coalition so varied that it stunned Congress into near unanimity. Nearly every faith group was on board, as were the American Civil Liberties Union and conservative Christians like me. We all embraced one view. The free exercise of religion was for every person of every faith.

In his South Lawn speech, President Clinton gave voice to nearly every principle articulated by Attorney General Barr at Notre Dame.

Clinton proclaimed that “religion helps to give our people the character without which democracy cannot survive.” While Barr’s more lengthy remarks explain this idea in greater detail, his conclusion is indistinguishable from Clinton’s. “In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only sustainable for a religious people — a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order.”

Barr lamented that, “over the past 50 years, religion has been under increasing attack.” Clinton critiqued a legal trend involving “more than 50 cases” which devalued religious freedom and added that “the most central institution of our society, the family, has been under assault for 30 years.”

The most controversial part of Barr’s presentation was his strong rebuke of the modern progressive movement and its increasingly shrill demand that all voices that dissent from its articles of belief be silenced, shamed and shunned.

Clinton had some things to say along these lines.

Pointing to Steven Carter’s book “The Culture of Disbelief,” Clinton concurred with the author’s assessment that religious people feel marginalized if they admit that their actions or viewpoints are “dictated by their faith.”

Clinton embraced a truly tolerant view. “I submit to you today, my fellow Americans, that we can stand that kind of debate in this country.”

His final words on this historic occasion were a ringing endorsement of Barr’s central thesis: “But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.”

As a part of the legal team for Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, it is more than self-evident to me that not all Americans believe the things that President Clinton said in 1993. All Americans should have the right to practice their faith without attack from the government.

It is deeply encouraging that one key American who still believes the principles articulated by President Clinton is Attorney General William Barr.

There are parallels in history for the drive to silence voices that the progressive left believes to be unacceptable. But do not expect these intemperate radicals to know anything of the fires of Smithfield or the darkness of the Kings Bench Prison.

King James — who was no friend of religious liberty — declared that a group of dissenting ministers would either conform to his “more enlightened views” or be harassed out of the land — or worse.

These historical antecedents are ugly and dangerous and give rise to the deepest level of concern to those of us who know this history and see the rising dangers. Those who advocate silencing their opponents seem hell-bent on engulfing us in strife and increasingly heavy coercion to achieve their policy objectives. They call themselves the forces of tolerance, but they bear torches that have the stench of Smithfield rising from their flames.

Like Bill Clinton, William Barr is on the right side of history.

Michael P. Farris is the president, CEO and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom. Follow ADF on Twitter @AllianceDefends.

Tags Bill Clinton Bill Clinton Free Exercise Clause Freedom of religion in the United States Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission notre dame university Religious Freedom Restoration Act William Barr
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