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The religious liberty legacy of Orrin Hatch

The late Sen. Orrin Hatch sponsored two major religious freedom policies during his 42-year Senate career

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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is photographed in his Senate hideaway office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. Hatch said he was proud to inherit the office from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a place where he fondly remembers sharing many debates with Kennedy.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Former Sen. Orrin Hatch, who died on April 23 at age 88, left an indelible mark on American politics during his 42-year Senate career. His influence was especially profound in the realm of religious liberty; Hatch sponsored two measures — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — that redefined what the government owes to people of faith.

In one of his last interviews with the Deseret News, Hatch shared a few thoughts on this religious freedom work. He emphasized the importance of protecting religious expression and alluded to how complicated that work has become.

“If I was to pick one bill that I love more than anything else it’s the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We could not pass that today,” he said. “That has protected religious freedom like never before. It’s something you would think you wouldn’t have to protect, but believe me you have to protect it.”

Over the past week, I reached out to a few of my regular sources and asked them to share their thoughts on Hatch’s religious liberty legacy. Here’s what they said:

Douglas Laycock, professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia

Volume Three of my collected writings on Religious Liberty is dedicated to Sen. Hatch and the other lead sponsors of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Sen. Hatch’s bipartisan collaboration with Sen. Edward Kennedy was critical to enacting RFRA. And then when the Supreme Court invalidated RFRA as applied to the states, and the effort to replace it broke down in partisan conflict, it was Sen. Hatch who took the lead and rescued the parts that could still be enacted. His efforts resulted in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious organizations against arbitrary or discriminatory zoning, and also protects the religious exercise of prisoners. His contribution to religious liberty in the United States was huge. His willingness to work across party lines was both essential and admirable, and it has gone missing in today’s Congress. We need more Orrin Hatches in the Republican Party, and we are no longer getting them.

Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America

He viewed religious freedom as the cornerstone of everything America is about. That view was very much informed by his awareness that Latter-day Saints had been and still are a minority faith community and they were persecuted in early decades of their existence. He said to me on multiple occasions that his faith group’s history made him identify with Jewish experiences over the centuries. Sen. Hatch and I commiserated over the fact that religious freedom has become more polarized both from the far left and the far right. Hatch exemplified that there is a way to protect religious freedom and expand the rights of others, that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I missed him as soon as he retired from the Senate and he’ll be missed for many years to come.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Hatch was a model of civil discourse, principled leadership and advancement of religious freedom for all at home and abroad, in and outside of his roles in government.

Hatch will lie in state from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4, at the Utah Capitol. Funeral services are scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, May 6, at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Institute of Religion, located at 1780 S. Campus Drive in Salt Lake City.

Both events are open to the public.


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