Thirty years since the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, religious liberty rights remain essential, but they’re increasingly devalued and misunderstood, according to Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.

For some lawmakers and community leaders, issues like ending anti-LGBTQ discrimination and protecting abortion rights now take precedence over defending people of faith, which puts religious freedom’s future at risk, Lankford said Thursday during a webinar on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act hosted by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.

“There are some folks whose highest value is abortion or sexual orientation and gender identity issues — that trumps everything else. And they’d say, ‘If you disagree with my opinion on those things, you need to be silent and you need to be isolated,’” he said.

To defend religious freedom today requires consistently making the case that conscience rights benefit everyone, said Lankford and other panelists.

“Elected officials on both the left and right have constituents who need (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) in order to live out their religious beliefs,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Preserving its basic structure really is important for everyone.”

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Religious freedom and gay rights

In 1993, when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed, there was a stronger consensus around the value of faith-based protections.

Democrats, Republicans and a wide variety of faith groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, worked together on the law, which passed the House unanimously on a voice vote and the Senate 97-3, as the Deseret News previously reported.

But by the late 1990s, it was already becoming more difficult to pass faith-related laws. Early debates about legalizing same-sex marriage and ending anti-LGBTQ discrimination exposed how difficult it can be to protect religious freedom and LGBTQ civil rights at the same time.

Today, some Americans worry that religious liberty laws are causing harm, Lankford said.

“People will stop me and say, ‘You can either be supportive of religious liberty or supportive of the LGBTQ community, but you’ve got to pick a side,’” he said during the webinar.

Beliefs like those explain why some gay rights bills currently in front of Congress aim to limit the scope of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he added.

And it’s not just more liberal leaders who sometimes see people of faith as an impediment to their policy goals, Lankford said, noting that he’s seen legislation on building a border wall that would have created a carveout in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to avoid lawsuits from Native Americans who worry about the wall cutting across sacred lands.

“I would push people to ... think about this deeply and not just go for what their preferences are,” he said, noting that, “the right of conscience is the most precious possession you have in your soul.”

Educating the public

Modern efforts to strengthen religious freedom protections, or at least to maintain existing laws, are threatened by more than ongoing culture war battles, panelists said. The rise of the “nones,” or people who don’t affiliate with a religious community, also leads to confusion about and, in some cases, discomfort with religious liberty rights.

“Religious liberty has a big PR problem,” said Jennie Bradley Lichter, deputy general counsel for The Catholic University of America. People who aren’t personally religious often struggle to see the “continued importance of religious liberty.”

Christopher Bates, deputy solicitor general in the Utah attorney general’s office, agreed, noting that supporters of laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act need to proactively explain to people why those policies matter and what they’ve achieved.

The act’s “application across all issues and areas is something that’s important and needs to be protected,” he said.

Although the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is often associated with lawsuits brought by Christians, its strength is that it protects everyone equally, Baxter said.

Cases brought under the act have protected “a wide range of beliefs,” he said. “The people protected most often are from minority religions.”

All Americans should be able to see the value in allowing everyone to have a faith, change their faith, live their faith in public or private, or have no faith at all, as the Founders did, Lankford said.