Ted Cruz Rips Fellow Republicans for 'Running' from Religious Freedom Fights

"More than a few Republicans, sadly, even more than a few Republicans running for president in 2016, chose that moment somehow to go rearrange their sock drawer."

For Ted Cruz, 2016 will be the election for religious liberty. And he's got some choice words for his fellow Republican White House hopefuls about their records of defending it.

Speaking at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Washington conference Thursday, the Texas senator called the controversy over "religious freedom" laws in Indiana and Arkansas "heartbreaking." He blamed the Democratic Party and big business for teaming up against the cause of religious liberty.

But that wasn't the saddest part of the battle, he said. Rather, it was "just how many Republicans ran for the hills."

"More than a few Republicans, sadly, even more than a few Republicans running for president in 2016, chose that moment somehow to go rearrange their sock drawer," Cruz said. "I'll tell you this, I will never, ever, ever shy from standing up and defending the religious liberty of every American."

When Indiana's law came to national attention in the spring, Cruz quickly backed Gov. Mike Pence, who initially defended its provisions before later calling for it to be amended. Cruz's fellow presidential aspirants expressed support for the law as well. But Jeb Bush seemed to change his stance after a few days: At first he defended Pence, saying he'd "done the right thing" and that the law was "simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs." Later, he said lawmakers could've taken a "better approach" to the law.

Cruz lauded his own record on religious liberty issues at the Road to Majority conference, identifying cases he'd defended as a lawyer in court that he said protected the rights of religious persons. And he went after the Obama administration for what he views as their poor record on religious liberty, including in its argument for same-sex marriage in front of the Supreme Court.

Cruz painted a picture of the IRS targeting people of faith in the future for opposing gay marriage, and expressed his hope for the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on the matter. "I would encourage everyone here to be lifting up in prayer the court, that they not engage in an act of naked and lawless judicial activism, tearing down the marriage laws adopted pursuant to the Constitution," Cruz said.

He said religious liberty is no longer a priority for both Republicans and Democrats. "The modern Democratic Party has decided their commitment to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states trumps any willingness to defend the First Amendment," Cruz said.

Cruz also used the stage to call on religious people around the country to make the right choice when they vote for a president 18 months from now. He said there are 90 million evangelicals in America, but 50 million of them "are staying home" from the polls. He asked audience members to reach out to their fellow people of faith to turn out the Christian vote.

"It's a real simple formula," Cruz said. "If people of faith show up, if we stand for our faith and our liberty and the Constitution, we will win and turn the country around."