When the federal government adopted a religious protection act in 1993, same-sex marriage was not on the horizon.
An informal coalition of liberals and conservatives endorsed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it seemed to protect members of vulnerable religious minorities from punishment for the exercise of their beliefs. The federal legislation was set off by a case in which two followers of the Native American church were fired and denied unemployment benefits because they took part in ceremonies with peyote, an illegal drug.
Twenty states, including Indiana last week, have since passed their own versions of religious freedom laws.
But over time, court decisions and conservative legal initiatives started to change the meaning of those laws, according to liberal activists. The state laws were not used to protect minorities, these critics say, but to allow some religious groups to undermine the rights of women, gays and lesbians or other groups.