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Do We Really Celebrate Religious Freedom?

In an ironic twist of events, President Obama issued a Presidential Proclamation yesterday in honor of Religious Freedom in America. In the text of his proclamation, the President stated “As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.” These are, indeed, beautiful and stirring words; they are words with which I, and most Americans, wholeheartedly agree. The troubling part of the President’s proclamation isn’t the text itself, but the inescapable fact that the President’s words are divorced from his Administration’s actions.

At the same time the President was penning this proclamation, over 110 plaintiffs had petitions pending in American courts to defend their freedom to exercise their religious convictions. From Hobby Lobby to Notre Dame, institutions and organizations seeking to live out their faith in public life have had to resort to the courts to defend against an avalanche of regulations and legislation that this White House has implemented and supported. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act alone, Catholic Institutions like Notre Dame and Georgetown University are being forced to pay for contraception and abortifacient drugs, in direct defiance of their deeply held religious beliefs. Such mandates contradict the concept of true religious liberty, at least as our nation has traditionally understood it.

The President has, on numerous occasions, subtly redefined the concept of religious liberty by styling it “freedom of worship.” While this may seem like a subtle and insignificant change, there is a world of difference between worship and religion. Worship is the temporary act of adoration in a service, while a religious conviction is a manner of living, a worldview, which affects all aspects of a person’s life. This includes one’s engagement in public policy and in the private economy. Thus, under Obama’s subtle – yet profoundly significant – reinterpretation of religious liberty, one may oppose abortion and support marriage equality in private, but never voice such opinions in public. In other words, the President’s policy on religious liberty force-privatizes religion. This is an ironic twist in itself, for the President seems to oppose all forms of privatization in business and education, but is wholly in favor of it when it comes to faith.

This Administration’s philosophy of religious liberty may sound as if it’s perfectly in line with the traditions of the American Founding. Nevertheless, the devil is in the details, and the Administration’s actions speak much louder than the President’s words. Americans are increasingly on the defensive if they hold deep religious convictions that inform their concept of moral absolutes. The ongoing effort to undermine religious liberty by the Obama Administration was fully epitomized when the US Supreme Court handed it a unanimous defeat in the case of Hosanna Tabor vs. EEOC. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Obama Administration attempted to force an openly Christian private school to hire non-Christians, including people of differing faiths, to teach Christian curriculum in their classrooms. The Obama Justice Department defended the EEOC’s overreach before the Supreme Court, even though the court struck-down the EEOC’s efforts with unanimity.

These examples of the Administration’s contempt for religious liberty cannot be ameliorated by an appropriate and eloquent proclamation on Religious Freedom Day. Folks may reasonably be forgiven for believing that such window dressing is nothing more than a beautifully worded distraction from the Administration’s ongoing efforts to undermine the 1st Amendment and the real religious liberty it ensures.

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