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Candidates thread the needle on 'religious freedom'

Republican presidential candidates who’ve typically shied away from contentious social issues attempted to thread the needle on the role of faith in government Thursday during the final GOP presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses — a nominating contest shaped more forcefully by evangelical voters than those in other early states.

Asked about Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who spent five nights behind bars last year for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie maintained his position that “the law needs to be followed.”

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“If Ms. Davis wanted to step aside … there should be someone else in that office who it didn’t violate their conscience so they could follow the law of the state of Kentucky,” said Christie. “I never said Ms. Davis should lose her job or that she had to do it, but I did say that the person who came in for the license needed to get it.”

Christie’s response was far less supportive of Davis than those of some of his rivals, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was on hand when Davis was released from jail last year and has hosted two “religious liberty” rallies urging broader cover for Christians to deny service to same-sex couples. Cruz did not weigh in on Davis during Thursday’s debate.

Christie quickly pivoted to protecting religious liberty from ISIS.

“Here’s the problem with what’s going on around the world: The radical Islamic jihadists, what they want to do is impose their faith on each and every one of us,” said Christie. “I will take on ISIS not only because it keeps us safe, but because it allows us to absolutely conduct our religious affairs the way we find in our hearts.”

Later, on a different social issue, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul appeared to take on a stronger anti-abortion stance than he has in the past, arguing for both state and federal restrictions. He did say, however, that “for the most part, these issues should be left back to the states.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, by contrast, made a completely unabashed appeal to religious voters, saying that “our Judeo-Christian values” are what makes America special. “You should hope that our next president is someone who is influenced by their faith,” he said. “I always allow my faith to influence everything I do.”