What Religious Freedom?

Today, while much of the nation is still celebrating this week's presidential inauguration, we want to call attention to another day the president has asked America to commemorate. President Obama recently proclaimed January 16 Religious Freedom Day.

Let's be blunt: this proclamation has people familiar with the president's notably poor record on religious freedom scratching their heads. It almost seems like a bad joke.

The proclamation rightly commends founding fathers Jefferson and Madison for their defense of the rights of all men to "profess...their opinions in matters of religion." And it says, "[R]eligious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe."

All tremendous words! So the disconnect with the president's actual record on religious freedom could not be more dramatic and disturbing. Here are just three of several examples:

A few weeks ago, the White House announced that Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio would offer the benediction at the upcoming inauguration. Giglio's laudable efforts in combating sexual trafficking had earned him the attention and praise of the president. However, when a blog broke the "news" that Giglio had preached the biblical message concerning the morality of sexual relations, he was pressured to step aside. Giglio learned that under the current administration, a pastor holding the positions set forth in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and other faiths is disqualified from participating in one of the great ceremonies of our civic life.

In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Resources implemented a rule under Obamacare that forces employers to subsidize the cost of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs. With the narrowest of exceptions, all organizations are required to comply, regardless of any conflict with the mandates of conscience. This includes faith-based hospitals, charities, schools, small businesses and major corporations like arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby and Bible publisher Tyndale, which face huge fines for each day they fail to comply with the rule.

Finally, the Obama administration ordered the Justice Department to cease enforcement of the duly enacted Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by President Clinton, and ended the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. One not-so-unintended result of these actions is that American military chaplains are being pressured to accommodate and affirm same-sex sexual conduct and relationships despite their religious convictions.

These three examples should send chills down the spines of those who understand the centrality of religious freedom to the America of the last two centuries.

Of course, attempts to limit the place of religion are not new. There have been ugly efforts to compel nurses and doctors to refer for, and even perform, abortions. Some so-called "anti-discrimination" statutes require religious institutions and businesses to engage in activities they judge to be immoral. Catholic adoption and foster care placement services have actually been forced out of operation in some places because their conscientious policy is to place children in homes where they will have the benefit of a married mother and father.

The Manhattan Declaration was written in response to these sorts of violations. It reads in part:

"Immunity from religious coercion is the cornerstone of an unconstrained conscience. No one should be compelled to embrace any religion against his will, nor should persons of faith be forbidden to worship God according to the dictates of conscience or to express freely and publicly their deeply held religious convictions. What is true for individuals applies to religious communities as well."

Sadly these words are now more important than ever. All Americans ought to be alarmed by the recent developments we've mentioned, regardless of whether they share the particular faith convictions of those involved. We hope people will stand up for religious freedom and will read and sign the Manhattan Declaration at As Dr. King wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we are connected in an "escapable network of mutuality" and so "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

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