At the close of his 2009 inaugural address, Barack Obama offered an inspiring message for a nation struggling to regain its footing after the 2008 financial crisis: "Let it be said by our children’s children that, when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and, with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
Months later, during his May 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, the president returned to the issue of freedom, this time acknowledging the need to "honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."
Questions naturally arise.
How to explain, then, the Obama administration’s subsequent decision to discontinue federal grants to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ top-rated anti-trafficking program because the Church’s services to trafficking victims did not include access to birth control and abortion?
And how to explain the administration’s approval of the federal contraception mandate and its accompanying rhetoric that framed moral objections to the mandate as a "war on women?"
Last year, when religious institutions and for-profit businesses began filing legal challenges to the mandate, the Obama administration’s lawyers filed papers that called for the dismissal of the lawsuits and offered fresh promises of modified regulations to aid religious plaintiffs.
But many months have passed, and both a U.S. district court in New York and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals have pressed the administration to act on its pledge.
"There is no ‘Trust us; changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution," the federal judge noted in a decision that granted a preliminary injunction for the New York Archdiocese.
That Dec. 5 decision further stated, "Ignoring the speeding train that is coming toward plaintiffs in the hope that it will stop might well be inconsistent with the fiduciary duties that plaintiffs’ directors or officers owe to their members."
Indeed, during a time of great need and tight nonprofit budgets, our religious institutions are forced to deploy precious resources to make contingency plans and reserve cash — in the event that they are faced with exorbitant fines for failing to comply with the mandate.
As Obama prepared for the inauguration of his second term as president of the United States, media reports confirmed that the Christian minister chosen to preside at the event would step down, after homosexual activists attacked the pastor’s previous criticism of homosexual activity more than a decade earlier.
In a statement marking the departure of Pastor Louie Giglio of the Atlanta-based Passion City Church, the committee planning the inauguration pledged that his replacement’s beliefs would "reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans."
A new minister was then appointed. This change of guard signified a great deal about the administration’s "tolerance" of dissent on social-policy positions close to the heart of the Democrats’ political base. Ironically, in the name of "inclusion and acceptance," Pastor Giglio and his beliefs about traditional marriage were excluded, despite the fact that they are shared by a large percentage of Americans and billions of others around the world.
Soon after this decision, Obama issued a proclamation making Jan. 16 Religious Freedom Day. The occasion gave the president a fresh opportunity to affirm his commitment to religious freedom.
"Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose," he stated, choosing to lead with the right to "worship," rather than the more expansive right to religious liberty, which incorporates faith-based expression and activity in the public square.
However, the president’s proclamation also asserted that "religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace. … As we observe Religious Freedom Day, let us remember the legacy of faith and independence we have inherited, and let us honor it by forever upholding our right to exercise our beliefs free from prejudice or persecution."
We welcome a fresh opportunity to draw the nation’s attention to the importance of religious liberty as a cherished legacy of the Founding Fathers.
But after four years, the administrators, clients and supporters of Church-affiliated institutions might be forgiven for dismissing the latest sample of presidential rhetoric on religious freedom as so much talk.
Talk is cheap. Actions are needed now to secure the future stability of our Catholic institutions that have survived many challenges in our nation’s history and stand ready to continue their work of service.
Moving forward, the U.S. bishops and all Catholics of good will are going to identify areas of common agreement with the president.
For example, he has signaled plans to move forward quickly on comprehensive immigration reform, a long-standing goal of the bishops and of many Catholics, especially undocumented workers and their families who seek to put down roots in this country without fear of deportation.
But as we find areas of common purpose, we need to join our prayers with common action, ratcheting up the pressure on this administration to make good on its promises. Time is running out.