- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2012

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.

“If the church can be dragooned into providing these objectionable services, then the door is open to other objectionable services down the road. So it’s breaching a principle,” said the Most Rev. William E. Lori, Roman Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Conn.

The mandate “fits into a pattern of actions this administration has taken that show hostility toward religious liberty,” testified William K. Thierfelder, president of the Belmont Abbey College, which was the first institution to sue the Obama administration over the contraceptive policy.

Three years ago, Mr. Thierfelder told the House committee, the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused Belmont Abbey College of “gender discrimination” for not covering contraception in the employee health care plan.

“They then sat on their hands and refused to issue a final determination in our case. They have left us in limbo, with an EEOC investigation hanging over our heads, for more than 2½ years,” Mr. Thierfelder said.

Asked about the case, an EEOC spokeswoman said Friday that the agency cannot “confirm or deny the existence of charge filings, investigations or administrative resolutions,” except in cases where it filed a lawsuit against an employer.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the Belmont Abbey lawsuit, as well as cases for a Catholic media network and an evangelical Christian university in Colorado. Priests for Life filed a federal lawsuit in New York with the assistance of American Freedom Law Center and attorney Charles S. LiMandri. Several state attorneys general, including Nebraska’s Jon Bruning, have pledged to file a lawsuit against the policy as well.

The Alliance Defense Fund plans to file a lawsuit against the contraception policy on behalf of Geneva College. It filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of Louisiana College on Saturday.

Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the fund, cited the recent Hosanna-Tabor case as another example of Obama administration missteps on religious rights.

In that case, attorneys for the Department of Justice and EEOC argued that “the government has a compelling interest to eliminate discrimination,” even if it means intervening in hiring and firing decisions in religious entities, like the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Mr. Theriot said.

“Of course the Supreme Court rejected that,” because of the “ministerial exception,” he said. “But it was very disturbing that the attorneys for the administration made that argument.”

Yet there is considerable defense for Mr. Obama and his policies.

“I think on all of these questions, you have seen some people who are engaged in trying to solve the problem and some people who are engaged in wanting a political fight,” said Tom Perriello, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“I think if we spent a tenth as much time focused on trying to genuinely solve these problems and not score political points, we would be a more moral nation, and one that did more to promote religious freedom and social justice,” Mr. Perriello said.

“As someone who truly loves my church, I don’t like to see the church, whether it’s my church or an evangelical church, being used for political purposes. And I think that to a large extent, that’s what’s going on,” Mr. Cafardi said.

Religious leaders, however, told Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and member of House oversight committee, that they were serious about not violating their consciences over the contraception policy.

“Yes, I would, clearly” rather go to jail, said the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

“I’d like to be in his cell,” said C. Ben Mitchell, a Baptist minister and professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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