There’s a war raging over the “war on religion.”
President Obama’s public clash with U.S. Catholic bishops in recent weeks over the issue of health insurance coverage for birth-control services has ignited a wider debate over whether the administration’s policies such as gay marriage, abortion and employment-discrimination laws are running roughshod over religious freedom.
Critics — many of whom packed a contentious Capitol Hill hearing Thursday to examine the contraception debate — say the administration’s policies amount to a pattern of decisions that are either insensitive to faith-based convictions or actively hostile to long-established religious freedoms and legal rights.
“If the government can force Catholic monks to dispense birth control, what can’t it do?” Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The furor continues to build: A sixth federal lawsuit against the contraception policy is scheduled to be filed Tuesday. On Monday, the Family Research Council released a letter signed by 2,500 religious leaders denouncing the policy.
Mr. Obama’s defenders deny that the administration harbors ill will to religious interests and accuse Republicans and social conservative activists of playing up divisions over policy for political advantage in an election year.
“If Obama is ‘warring’ against religion, he’s doing it with a popgun and a rubber knife,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “On core religious-freedom issues, they have been moderate, to a fault. … It’s not much of a war.”
The contraception rule “is not a ‘war on religion,’ ” Timothy S. Jost, law professor at Washington and Lee School of Law, said Friday. Instead, it is “an attempt to accommodate a serious public health need and a sincerely held religious and moral conviction.”
“I think even the use of that expression is troubling to me. … We know too clearly what real war is,” Sister Anne Curtis, a leader of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, said during a recent media call organized by Faith in Public Life that defended the Obama administration’s Feb. 10 accommodation on the contraception policy.
“There’s no war here,” said Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of law at Duquesne University, who was also on the call.
Religion has been a touchy issue for Mr. Obama since his candidacy, when his Christian faith was questioned as well as the views of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Many of his administration’s activities, such as refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy on gays, and allowing taxpayer funds to go to international family-planning groups that promote or provide abortions, have been condemned by religious leaders and faith-based organizations.
Still, Mr. Lynn said, Mr. Obama has “already done what I consider excessive outreach to conservative Christians to make sure that they at least approve of some of his decisions, and, in fact, they do.”
The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, for instance, still funds religious organizations “that discriminate in hiring,” as it did in the Bush administration, he said. Regarding Plan B emergency contraception, the administration “declined to follow the scientific advice of the Food and Drug Administration” and retained the restrictions on the product.
“This is a president who has never been given a moment’s rest from a persistent opposition, not only from the Catholic bishops but also the so-called religious right of Protestantism,” said Mr. Lynn. “They never give you a break.”
In testimony about the contraception mandate before the House oversight committee Thursday, numerous witnesses said they felt their religious institutions were under siege by an insensitive White House.