WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s designation of a national Religious Freedom Day is leading to calls for his administration to show greater respect for the conscience rights of Americans.
“If it is not to be an empty promise,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, “religious freedom must also include acting on one’s deepest religious beliefs when one is feeding the poor, caring for the sick, educating the young or running a business.”
Duncan welcomed the president’s proclamation but expressed regret over its failure to acknowledge the threats to religious freedom posed by the controversial contraception mandate.
Customarily proclaimed and celebrated every year on Jan. 16, Religious Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the 1786 enactment of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson.
In his official 2013 proclamation, Obama recognized “our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution.”
“Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose,” the proclamation said. “Because of the protections guaranteed by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice our faith openly and as we choose.”
Recognizing the contributions of people of faith to the building of America, the president acknowledged that religious liberty is not merely an American principle enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but “a universal human right” that constitutes “an essential part of human dignity” and a necessary ingredient for lasting peace.
He called on Americans to use Jan. 16 to learn about religious liberty and how it can be protected for future generations.
Tim Schultz, state legislative policy director for the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told Catholic News Agency that the annual proclamation indicates that Americans “overwhelmingly” support religious freedom. He noted that the Religious Freedom Day is proclaimed every year by presidents of either political party, showing that religious liberty is not a partisan concern, but a basic American principle.
Religion is “at the core” of people’s identity, Schultz explained, and Americans of all faiths and no faith at all recognize the importance of a robust freedom of religion. He called on the administration to ensure that its actions matched its language promoting freedom of religion for all Americans.
More Than ‘Worship’
Other religious-freedom advocates voiced concern over the Obama administration’s failure to support the free exercise of religion.
In a statement responding to the proclamation, Duncan criticized the president’s use of the phrase “freedom of worship.”
“Religious freedom certainly includes worship, but it extends beyond the four walls of a church,” he said, pointing to the contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce early abortions.
The Obama administration has denied an exemption to religious owners of for-profit companies, arguing that their exercise of religion does not extend to business decisions.
The mandate, Duncan warned, ignores the breadth of religious liberty “and is, therefore, out of step with our traditions and our laws, which promise religious freedom for all.”
Ashley McGuire, senior fellow for The Catholic Association, called the president’s proclamation “tremendously hypocritical.” She pointed to the more than 100 plaintiffs who have filed religious-freedom lawsuits over the contraception mandate.
“By replacing ‘freedom of religion’ with ‘freedom of worship’ yet again,” McGuire told CNA, “the president makes plain as day his effort to confine religion entirely to the private sphere. This is very bad for Americans of every religion.”