Bill Clinton’s 1993 religious freedom law could haunt his wife

Published 11:35 am Saturday, April 4, 2015

WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton is denouncing legislative efforts in Indiana and Arkansas that opponents say discriminate against gay people. That puts her in line with her party’s current views on gay rights and in opposition to nearly every Republican candidate likely to run against her.

But Republicans argue that it also puts her on a collision course with her husband, Bill Clinton, who as president signed a 1993 law that served as the starting point for the latest efforts.

“As President Clinton said when he signed the federal law in 1993, I believe religious liberty is our first freedom, and it is vital to millions of Americans who cherish faith, as I and my family do,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, said this week in defending his state’s legislation.

The federal and Indiana laws share much of the same text and even the same name: Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The similarities could cause political complications for Hillary Clinton as she nears a presidential bid and casts herself as a policymaker in her own right, proud of her husband’s accomplishments but independent of his legacy.

But Clinton and other Democrats view the comparisons as specious, and they note that the federal statute was intended to protect individual religious expression, such as Native American peyote ceremonies or the wearing of a Muslim head scarf.

The Indiana and Arkansas laws, by contrast, were envisioned primarily as a legal shield for businesses who do not wish to serve gays or lesbians for religious reasons, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats said.

“There’s no way to say credibly that the Indiana or Arkansas law is substantially the same as the nearly 25-year-old RFRA law, and those who say so are falling for the far right’s spin,” said Adrienne Watson, communications director for the pro-Clinton research group Correct The Record.

“They’re different laws in different times with a different intent,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.

Hillary Clinton has not addressed head-on whether the original federal law has been distorted in the new statutes. But she criticized the Supreme Court’s decision last year in a case involving a family-run company, Hobby Lobby, that successfully challenged a requirement to provide contraception in its health coverage to employees.

“The reason that was passed and Bill signed it in the ’90s was because at that point, there were legitimate cases of discrimination against religions,” Clinton said during an appearance last summer at the Aspen Institute, adding later: “This is certainly a use that no one foresaw.”

In the current controversy, Clinton waded in last week using one of her favorite platforms, Twitter, to condemn Indiana for approving its version of the law. “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today,” she tweeted. “We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love #LGBT”

Then when Arkansas lawmakers approved a similar version this week, Clinton tweeted again. “Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans. I urge Governor to veto,” she wrote.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, ended up threatening such a veto if lawmakers didn’t revise the legislation, citing in part concerns from Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and other businesses. He signed an altered version of the measure Thursday that Republicans said was closer to the federal statute.

In Indiana, the House and Senate approved revisions to that state’s law as well. Indiana Democratic leaders, however, say the new version does not go far enough and that the entire law should be repealed.