February 23, 2012
Catholic bishops, evangelical pastors and Republican presidential candidates have been decrying the Obama administration's war on religious liberty. Amid all the uproar, it's easy to overlook something equally important: the administration's many battles for religious liberty.
The president has gotten deserved criticism for trying to force Catholic colleges and hospitals to buy insurance coverage for something they regard as evil: birth control. But that's only part of the story. In other realms, believers have found a Barack Obama and his Justice Department to be staunch allies.
The most conspicuous surprise involves government rules for faith-based organizations that get federal funding for social services.President George W. Bushissued an executive order allowing such groups to hire only people who share their faith — exempting them from the usual ban on religious discrimination. Liberal critics accused him of underwriting "theocracy" and "faith-based coercion."
One of the opponents was Obama. In his presidential campaign, he said his view was simple: "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them — or against the people you hire — on the basis of their religion."
But it hasn't worked out that way. Obama has left Bush's rule in place, infuriating many groups that expected a reversal.
They have repeatedly pressed him to bar these groups from using religious criteria in deciding whom to hire and whom to serve. Last year, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination wrote the White House complaining that "we have seen no forward movement on this issue."
That's not the sentiment at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which includes such perennial Obama critics as theU.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention. It has taken the uncharacteristic step of siding with the administration.
"We commend your steadfast preservation of federal policies that protect the freedom of religious organizations to consider religion in making employment decisions," it informed Obama last year. "Mr. President, your appreciation for the good that religious organizations contribute on a daily basis to our society is evident."
In this instance, Obama may be accused of ignoring the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which forbids government support of religion. But if so, it's because he has given too much deference to religious freedom rather than too little.
His commitment is also on display in defending churches against municipal governments that would prefer to do without them. Under federal law, houses of worship are assured equitable treatment in land-use decisions. But mayors and community groups often tell churches to go to the devil.
When that happens, they often find themselves at odds with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Last year, it forced the town of Schodack, N.Y., to retreat after it barred an evangelical church from renting space in a commercial area where nonreligious meetings were allowed.
It filed a brief in support of a Hasidic Jewish congregation's lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, which had forbidden it to hold services in a private home. A federal court ordered the city to back off.
The administration has also intervened in cases where prisoners are denied religious literature. After a South Carolina sheriff prohibited inmates from getting devotional materials and other publications in the mail, the Justice Department sued. In the end, the county agreed to let inmates receive Bibles, Torahs, Qurans and related fare.
In doing all this, the administration isn't simply doing the politically appealing thing. Anything but. Those who endorse letting faith-based groups have a free hand in hiring are mostly religious conservatives who wouldn't vote for Obama if he resurrected the dead.
The congregations victimized by zoning regulations are too small to matter. Prison inmates generally can't vote. There is no detectable political gain in anything Obama is doing here.
University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock criticized the contraceptive mandate and opposed the administration in a Supreme Court case involving a teacher fired by a religious school. But he praises its efforts to help churches and prison inmates. And on the faith-based hiring issue, he says, Obama has actually been "kind of heroic."
The president's detractors may continue to portray him as a secular fanatic with, as Rick Santorum claims, an "overt hostility to faith in America." Before they do, though, they might want to remember the Ten Commandments — especially the one about bearing false witness.
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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