Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a new TV spot accusing President Obama of waging “war on religion.” It’s a reckless, overstated spot that exploits prejudice against gays while deliberately distorting major issues. But here’s the surprise: Perry has a point.
The First Amendment forbids any law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. It’s a broad statement, which is open to interpretation on the details of implementation. But on the fundamental message — that individuals should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others — there is no room for doubt.
Perry’s campaign supports his charge with several examples. Some are bogus, such as Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex unions.
That decision doesn’t tread on the rights of any believer. Those who think gay marriage is a violation of God’s law — like those who think adultery is a violation of God’s law — are free to spurn it.
Perry also takes offense that after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” military chaplains are allowed to preside at same-sex weddings. If they were required to do so, he would have cause to gripe. But they’re not.
As for the absence of officially sponsored prayer in schools, Perry shouldn’t blame Obama. He should blame the Supreme Court, which pronounced such exercises unconstitutional half a century ago.
But look far enough in this pile of chaff and you find some wheat. On two major issues cited by Perry, Obama has broken with precedent to curtail religious freedom in a way that should alarm staunch secularists (like myself) as well as the devout.
The first instance arose after passage of his health care overhaul, when the Department of Health and Human Services ordered that all insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization for women, with no co-payment. The mandate means many Americans would have to be complicit in something their faith forbids.
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out, “Before the mandate, insurers were free to issue plans covering contraception and sterilization (or not); employers were free to sponsor, and usually subsidize, plans with this coverage (or not); and employees were free to choose this coverage and pay for it through their premiums (or not).” That is no longer true.
The administration provides an exemption for religious employers — while defining the term so tightly that religious hospitals, social service agencies and colleges wouldn’t qualify.
The president of the University of Notre Dame is a priest. But under Obama Care, he is obligated to furnish his employees and students with birth control options that are anathema to the Catholic Church — or else drop health insurance coverage altogether.
Even states that mandate contraceptive coverage allow companies to avoid it by self-insuring. They also grant broad exemptions to those with faith-based conflicts. The federal employee health insurance program permits carriers with religious scruples to offer policies without contraceptive coverage.
But so far, the administration is not nearly so reasonable (though it is considering limited changes). Under its policy, the free exercise of religion ends where health insurance coverage begins.
Even more extreme is its position on a dispute involving an evangelical Lutheran church and school in Michigan. The school had dismissed a teacher who taught both religious and non-religious classes, and she went to court alleging illegal discrimination.
Federal courts have generally barred such lawsuits, leery of getting tangled up in church doctrine and discipline. But an appeals court ruled in favor of the teacher, and Obama’s Justice Department took her side.
Not only that, it said churches and their schools should be treated no differently from other employers. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean the Catholic Church could be forced to admit women to the priesthood.
When the case was argued before the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia marveled at the administration’s claim: “There, black on white in the text of the Constitution, are special protections for religion. And you say it makes no difference?” Exclaimed liberal Justice Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed, “I too find that amazing.”
In this case, as with the health care mandate, the president evidently thinks that when the imperatives of faith thwart his vision of social policy, faith will have to get out of the way.
Is Obama the enemy of religion? Not quite. But when it comes to religious freedom, he’s not a reliable friend.
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