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BY PAUL KENGOR
Bill Clinton will be soaking up the spotlight this week, basking in all his glory, with a platform to bring himself a lot of attention at the Democratic National Convention. The occasion will be the re-election of Barack Obama.
Bill Clinton has always been portrayed as a moderate Democrat, as has — to a lesser degree, and certainly compared to Barack Obama — his wife, Hillary Clinton. While readers will rightly take issue with that characterization, they should not take issue with another characterization of the Clintons, one that’s less appreciated but especially worthwhile right now: Both Clintons have been defenders of religious freedom. They really have. And yet they are suddenly silent in the face of the assault on religious freedom known as the Obama HHS mandate.
First, consider Bill Clinton:
As Clinton stated in his memoirs My Life: “I always felt that protecting religious liberty and making the White House accessible to all religious faiths was an important part of my job.” As president, Clinton practiced what he preached. He championed (among others) the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (passed 97-3 by the Senate) and the 1997 “Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace.” As to the former, Clinton signed it in order “to protect a reasonable range of religious expression in public areas like schools and workplaces.”
Pointing to these actions and more, my colleague Gary Smith has rightly described Bill Clinton as a “strong advocate [of] religious freedom at home and abroad.” That’s fair to say. It is likewise true for Hillary Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton long supported her husband’s 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, especially its promotion of religious freedom in public schools. In her book It Takes a Village, Mrs. Clinton sounded like a social conservative when emphasizing the importance of religion in schools.
Quoting her husband, she noted that “nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door.” She cited these words from her husband: “[R]eligion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools.”
Once capable of making law herself, as an elected senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton championed an initiative promoting religious freedom in the workplace. Specifically, in April 2005, Sen. Clinton co-sponsored the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, joining forces (remarkably) with no less than Sen. Rick Santorum, her polar opposite on many issues. The law guaranteed the right to religious expression on the job without fear of recrimination.
This meant, for example, that an Orthodox Jew who honors the Sabbath cannot be forced to work on the Sabbath against his or her will or that a Christian can wear a crucifix or that a Sikh can don a turban. Backers of the bill included a broad coalition of 40 clerics representing nearly every denomination.
The bill, which any reasonable person would support, had opponents among Sen. Clinton’s staunchest allies. For instance, Planned Parenthood and the National Women’s Law Center foresaw intolerable instances of “anti-choice” injustice, such as a situation where a pro-life nurse might request to not provide the “morning-after pill” to a rape victim or a Catholic pharmacist might as a matter of conscience refuse to dispense birth control. For these “pro-choice” feminists, religious freedom could not be permitted to trump their pre-eminent freedom: their sacred right to an abortion.
It was this narrow opposition from radical feminists that might have explained why, as the Village Voice put it, “[Mrs.] Clinton’s office has been notably quiet about her involvement” in the bill. The bill placed Senator Clinton in a conundrum, forcing her to commit heresy in the church of abortion feminism.
That was then. Today, Mrs. Clinton serves in the Obama administration — though at the State Department, not the Department of Health and Human Services.
And, today, Mrs. Clinton is silent on the Obama HHS mandate. In fact, as noted in a recent front-page feature in the Register, Mrs. Clinton in July spoke to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she lamented that the world is “sliding backwards” when it comes to guaranteeing religious freedom. She decried a “sobering” “shrinking” of religious freedom, but she did not mention any regression in the United States under the Obama administration.
In short, then, where are the Clintons now, as the current head of their party, President Obama, continues to stubbornly enforce his HHS mandate? Have these fighters for religious freedom said anything at all to the president? Have they voiced even a slight objection? For that matter, what about Barack Obama’s unprecedented presidential attempt to redefine marriage, which President Bill Clinton once preserved as between a man and a woman when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996?
Or, in the end, are Bill and Hillary Clinton merely two more blindly loyal and partisan Democrats who unquestioningly follow the pied piper who leads their party?
There are some things more important than your political party. Or so one would hope.