One of the enduring mysteries of the 2004 presidential race is why John Kerry failed to highlight, or even mention, one of his major Senate initiatives: legislation to protect the rights of religious individuals in the workplace. Kerry first introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, or WRFA, in 1996-long before the Democratic Party started to worry about "values" voters-after two of his Catholic constituents were fired from their jobs because they refused to work on Christmas Eve. He has reintroduced the bill in every congressional session since, joined by fellow Catholic, and odd political bedfellow, Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, an arch social conservative.

One would think that for Kerry, who was hounded by criticism from conservative Catholic bishops and looking to prove his religious bona fides during the campaign, an effort appealing to people across the religious and political spectrum should have been something he'd trumpet from the rooftops. Religious minorities love the bill because it would protect the right of Sikhs to wear their turbans on the job, for example, or of Orthodox Jews to swap work shifts in order to observe Yom Kippur. And Christian conservatives have embraced it because it reflects the fact that religious individuals have special concerns. A coalition of nearly 50 religious organizations--everyone from the Southern Baptist Convention and Family Research Council on the right to the National Council of Churches and American Jewish Committee on the left--supports WRFA.

What's more, the mere mention of a Kerry-Santorum bill causes heads to snap around in a double take. Best of all from the Kerry camp's perspective, because WRFA had been blocked by the business lobby--business groups oppose the idea that employers should have to make accommodations for religious workers--Kerry could present the bill as a measure to protect religious Americans that had been obstructed by Republican supporters.

Yet Kerry never mentioned his pet religious project on the campaign trail; the single campaign reference to the bill was one line at the very bottom of the "People of Faith for Kerry" page on the campaign's website. And on election day, the "religion gap" once again favored the Republican ticket.

Now, WRFA is back-and gaining momentum. On Thursday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on the legislation for the first time in the bill's almost decade-long history, an indication of the renewed enthusiasm for WRFA on the part of its congressional sponsors, which now include other unusual pairings such as Republican Senator Sam Brownback and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton. Santorum is trailing badly in his 2006 reelection campaign, and could use a win on a bill that reaffirms his appeal to religious conservatives. For his part, Kerry--who told the Globe after the 2004 campaign that one of the main lessons he had learned was the need to reach out to religious voters--is no longer reluctant to promote the bill.

There's just one problem. This time, the primary opposition to WRFA comes not from conservatives, but from liberals. After raising no objections during the first eight years of the bill's life, abortion rights and gay rights organizations are now pressuring congressional Democrats to oppose the bill, and they're having some success. Their involvement creates the first serious showdown between those Democrats who want to reach out to religious voters and the advocacy groups that have traditionally been among the party's strongest supporters.

If Democrats do come out en masse against the legislation, it will be an odd ending to a year in which they have struggled to gain some footing in the area of faith and values. After the 2004 election, the Democratic Party had a "come to Jesus" moment. Party leaders realized that they had been ignoring religious voters, allowing Republicans to corner the market. They resolved to change this, and in the past year have hired a religious outreach coordinator for the Democratic National Committee, placed religion consultants on campaign staffs, held caucus meetings on the topic, and tried to inject religious rhetoric into their messages.

Even so, a late-August poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the percentage of American voters who think the Democratic party is "friendly" to religion has actually dropped significantly over the past year-from 42 and 40 percent in 2003 and 2004, respectively, to just 29 percent in 2005.

The worst outcome for Democrats supporting WRFA...

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