Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday told graduating students at Liberty University they should stand by their principles because religious liberty is under threat by the Obama administration's birth-control mandate and immersed in other skirmishes at the intersection of religion and secular life.
The Supreme Court recently heard a challenge from two family-owned corporations that say the Affordable Care Act contraception mandate violates their religious beliefs. It is "a critical case that goes to the heart of religious freedom," Mr. Cruz, Texas Republican, said in his convocation speech to the Christian college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.
"Today, religious liberty has never been more under assault," he said. "We are called to action as believers, not to sitting quietly and hiding our faith under a bushel, but to stand and speak no matter what the consequence."
The outspoken freshman senator has clashed with the White House, congressional Democrats and members of his own party during his short tenure on Capitol Hill.
Cheered by the tea party and grassroots conservatives, Mr. Cruz was accused by some Republicans of causing a government shutdown last fall by demanding that Congress defund Obamacare as part of any federal spending deal.
Months later, he forced Senate Republican leaders into tough votes on the nation's debt ceiling. But he has won supporters along the way and is considered a rising star and potential contender for the party's presidential nomination in 2016.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cruz focused heavily on America's founding principles of religion and freedom in a speech that ranged in subject from the Bible to Martin Luther King Jr. to America's founding, sounding in turns like a history professor and/or a pastor delivering his Sunday sermon.
The senator said he wasn't there to talk politics, but delved into the various flashpoints between atheists and religiously affiliated groups. He also hit the IRS over its recent political targeting scandal.
"The federal government has no business asking any American the content of our prayers," Mr. Cruz said, alluding to a question the IRS asked a group seeking tax-exempt status.
Between parables about his religious life and other experiences, he recounted how before the Supreme Court he defended a Ten Commandments monument that stands on the Texas State Capitol grounds in downtown Austin, and fought off a challenge to the words "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
He encouraged the student body to stand up for their beliefs, using social media and other modern tools to their advantage, and accused the Obama administration of going too far in its legal fight with a group of nuns in Colorado.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, which run homes for the elderly poor, say they do not want to sign a waiver that turns over to others their responsibility for insuring their employees' contraceptives. It was an accommodation the administration extended to religiously affiliated nonprofits, but the nuns and others say signing the form is still encouraging another party to do something immoral according to their religion — pay for birth control — on their behalf.
The fight is wending its way through the federal appeals courts, while the Supreme Court mulls whether the contraception mandate should apply to all for-profit companies.
"How through the looking glass have we gone?" Mr. Cruz said, that the government is now litigating with people defending their religious faith.
Mr. Cruz also took some shots at himself, saying plenty of big names have spoken to the student body before, but today they were "stuck with a lawyer, and even worse a politician."
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