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Hillary Clinton Tells Mormons She'll Defend 'Religious Freedom'

Hillary Clinton Tells Mormons She'll Defend 'Religious Freedom'

Hillary Clinton Mormon

The fraught phrase is usually the stuff of Republicans, but the top Democrat has her own twist.


As she makes the case to Mormon voters in Utah, Hillary Clinton is casting herself as a hero for religious freedom.

That's not a term that sits well with LGBT people, who face persecution all over the country by right-wingers who claim "religious freedom" lets them turn away gay customers or refuse to let transgender people use the bathroom of their choice. Still, Clinton embraced the phrase in a new column published in the Deseret News -- a Utah newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon Church is formally known.

The op-ed begins by sounding almost like any of her speeches.

"I'm running for president to make sure our country continues to live up to our founding principles," she wrote on Wednesday. "Those timeless ideas teach us that we're stronger together when we work in unison to solve our problems, no matter what we look like, where we come from or how we pray."

LGBT people might have awaited the stock line that says something like "or no matter who you love." Instead, Clinton next emphasized the value of prayer.

"That last one is important," she wrote. "As Americans, we hold fast to the belief that everyone has the right to worship however he or she sees fit. I've been fighting to defend religious freedom for years."

Clinton then lists standing up for minority religions as part of a resume of accomplishments as secretary of State. The op-ed targets Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country, which he says would stop terrorism. But if Clinton's message to Mormons wasn't already clear, the headline was "Hillary Clinton: What I have in common with Utah leaders -- religious freedom and the Constitution."

Clinton is employing a phrase that she knows is heralded by the right wing to advance bills that discriminate against LGBT people. Take for example Indiana, which passed one of the most infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, before having to undo its handiwork in the face of national outrage and businesses threatening to leave the state. LGBT activists called that law a "license to discriminate" against LGBT people. So did Clinton.

During the primary, she listed her opposition to state RFRAs on her website among talking points that touted her record on LGBT rights. The point linked to a tweet she'd posted in reaction to the Indiana law, which was signed by Donald Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, as governor of the state.

When Trump named Pence as his pick, the Clinton campaign released a lengthy "fact check" that declared Pence "just as discriminatory as Trump" because he'd signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the campaign said "legalized discrimination."

Activists compared that Indiana law to a previously failed "religious freedom" law sent to the governor in Arizona. Both would let business owners cite their sincerely held religious beliefs as justification for not serving an LGBT person at their restaurant or, yes, even to refuse baking a cake for a same-sex wedding reception. Religious freedom laws could let landlords turn away LGBT renters, refuse to hire LGBT employees, or even interfere with adoption. Catholic Charities abandoned states where it claims its "religious freedom" was violated by requirements that it include same-sex couples when placing children for adoption.

Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, called on fellow judges to refuse same-sex couples marriage licenses because he says it would conflict with their "religious freedom." He's still saying it, even as the state considers whether to bounce him from the bench.

When county clerk Kim Davis refused to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples in Kentucky, she cited God's authority and her own religious freedom. It would take the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in and a federal judge locking her up for contempt before she relented. Even then, Davis walked out of jail to meet cheering crowds and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, their ringleader. Huckabee clasped their champion's hand and raised it to the sky as "Eye of the Tiger" blared over the speakers.

"All Americans value religious freedom, and that's why it is protected in our Constitution," said Kasey Suffredini of Freedom for All Americans. Suffredini is the chief program officer and director of the Transgender Freedom Project. "It's unfortunate that some use it as a thinly veiled guise to legitimize discrimination against LGBT Americans."

Like other activists, Suffredini notes the Constitution "already protects our right to freely practice our faith," so RFRAs are useless unless intended to go further than the Constitution. "Allowing special and differential treatment for any religious groups at the expense of basic rights for everyone, as required by our Constitution, is not religious freedom -- that is discrimination, plain and simple, and it should not be up for debate."

Clinton in her op-ed focuses strictly on the old constitutional meaning of the term. Still, there's just no way that Clinton doesn't understand the subtext that comes with the phrase "religious freedom" these days. One theory is she's "reclaiming" the phrase.

"In the last few years, the religious right has made religious freedom synonymous with anti-LGBT legislation," said Eliel Cruz, executive director of Faith in America. "Hillary Clinton is using the term as it is meant to be used. Religious freedom is about protecting religious minority groups. Clinton's usage of the phrase 'religious freedom' is a reclamation of it. Both Clinton and Kaine are individuals of faith who believe in LGBT equality not in spite of their faith but because of it."

This isn't the first time Clinton invoked religious freedom to call out Trump on his Muslim ban. In a speech in Pittsburgh after the Orlando shooting, Clinton criticized Trump for reiterating the notion in the wake of the mass shooting at an LGBT club, where Omar Mateen killed 49 people. "I've talked before about how this approach is un-American," she told the audience. "It goes against everything we stand for as a country founded on religious freedom."

If Clinton is taking the phrase back, she'd be doing it on behalf of the entire Clinton family legacy. The very first Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. Back then it had nothing to do with LGBT people. It was seen by Democrats as an effort to protect tribal religions. Groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and the Christian Legal Society liked the idea too because it limited the government's ability to burden a religion with new laws or regulation.

Utah made headlines last year when its Republican-led government actually passed an LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination law, though it came with a gaping religious exemption that won it the support of the Mormon Church. The religious exemption could be compared to a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in that it lets religious organizations, including colleges and charities, opt out of the protections. And religious employees can't be fired for discussing their beliefs at work. The legislation was originally floated as a possible work-around for other states, but activists elsewhere haven't embraced the exemptions. North Carolina took the opposite route, and lawmakers there undid all antidiscrimination ordinances rather than pass a RFRA.

"We should not get caught up in the semantics of this and instead recognize that Hillary stands squarely behind our community," argues Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina. "Donald Trump -- who is in favor of North Carolina's dangerous HB 2 -- would be a disaster for LGBT Americans. I am confident that Hillary Clinton does not support so-called RFRAs."

"Freedom of religion and freedom from religion is a core American value," said Russell Roybal of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund. "But as we've seen in this campaign, the concept had been twisted and manipulated by Donald Trump to dehumanize Muslims and one of the world's great faiths, Islam. Who knows which religion or group he is going to turn on next."

Roybal points to Pence as just another reminder of the issue bubbling under the surface. "So religious freedom is very much part of this election cycle," he said, "and all candidates for all offices from all political parties should not be using faith as an excuse to discriminate."

But whether you hear the phrase "religious freedom" and shudder, every political pundit agrees that Clinton's column is primarily aimed at winning over Mormon voters in Utah.

It's such a strange election year that Utah, which is normally a solidly red state, is in play for Democrats. The state's huge Mormon population is the prime factor. Revulsion at Donald Trump is perhaps best personified by Mitt Romney, among the most famous of Mormons and the GOP nominee last time around. Romney made the unusual move during the primary of delivering a much-hyped speech calling on Republicans to vote against Trump. When that didn't work, Romney refused to attend the Republican National Convention or endorse Trump. Clinton quotes Romney in her Deseret News op-ed.

"You don't have to take it from me," she wrote. "Listen to Mitt Romney, who said Trump 'fired before aiming' when he decided a blanket religious ban was a solution to the threat of terrorism."

For Mormons, the Trump ban on Muslims harkens to the days when they weren't welcome in parts of the country. Clinton points out in her op-ed that a Missouri governor issued an "extermination order" that expelled Mormons from the state in 1838. And in 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes attempted to block Mormons from immigrating to the United States.

LGBT people who read the op-ed ought to understand Clinton's comments in the full context of her campaign, said Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, a religious group that also stands for LGBT inclusion. They should view it as underscoring "her constitutional commitment to the protection of religious minorities" and "to the well-being of every human being -- particularly those who face discrimination."

"To say that her commitment to religious freedom in Utah may come at the expense of other minorities doesn't take account of her overall platform, her message, or her faith," he told The Advocate.

Mitch Mayne is an activist and an out gay Mormon living in San Francisco. He has a sense for what defending "religious freedom" will mean to Mormons who read the op-ed.

"That's a complicated phrase inside Mormonism," he told The Advocate. "For the more orthodox Mormons it will mean the freedom to claim religion as our legal reasoning for doing things many of us as LGBT people consider discriminatory -- such as refusing to offer goods and services to LGBT people."

Mayne said the term "can raise some eyebrows" for progressives, but "most of us in this camp will understand that she likely means helping ensure that the state doesn't interfere with church doctrine, which most of us believe it should not."

Nothing was accidental, that much is sure. Clinton chose her words carefully, said Mayne, using phrases that made her sound to Mormons like one of them.

"Perhaps more noteworthy was Hillary's use of very Mormon terms, such as 'Sister' when referring to Sister Rosemary Wixom," he points out. "Mormonism is a thick culture as well as a religion, and we have our own vernacular. Regardless of what conservative Mormons think of her, seeing a powerful, strong woman speaking their language in a church-owned paper is going to have people talking -- and hopefully thinking. This was an incredibly clever and smart move for her and is likely going to translate into an uptick in Mormon support."

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Lucas Grindley

Lucas Grindley is VP and Editorial Director for Here Media, which is parent company to The Advocate. His Twitter account is filled with politics, Philip Glass appreciation, and adorable photos of his twin toddler daughters.
Lucas Grindley is VP and Editorial Director for Here Media, which is parent company to The Advocate. His Twitter account is filled with politics, Philip Glass appreciation, and adorable photos of his twin toddler daughters.