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Right-Wing Religion's War on America

Many in America's Catholic leadership and on the evangelical right claim there's a war on religion. In fact, they are waging a war on individual liberties.

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The courts have long recognized this need to balance rights. In the late 19th century, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down plural marriage, which was then practiced by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon practice, the court held, was disruptive to society and had no roots in Western tradition; thus it could be banned.

In the modern era, the court devised a test whereby government could restrict religious liberty if it could demonstrate a “compelling state interest” and that it had employed the “least restrictive means” to meets its goals.

That standard was tightened even further in 1990, when the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case known as Employment Division v. Smith. The decision, written by arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, held that government has no obligation to exempt religious entities from “neutral” laws that are “generally applicable.”

Since then, many religious groups have turned to the political process to win exemptions from the law. Generally speaking, they’ve been very successful. In a ground-breaking 2006 New York Times series, the newspaper chronicled the various exemptions from the law granted to religious organizations covering areas like immigration, land use, employment regulations, safety inspections and others.

The Times reported that since 1989, “more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation….” The paper noted that other breaks “have also been provided by a host of pivotal court decisions at the state and federal level, and by numerous rule changes in almost every department and agency of the executive branch.”

But religious groups, like any other special interest, don’t get everything they want. On occasions when they’ve failed, some religious organizations have been quick to complain that discrimination or a hostility toward religion did them in. In fact, political leaders might have simply concluded that certain demands of religious groups are not in the best interests of larger society.

Is there any evidence that Obama is stingier with exemptions than past administrations or that the president has it in for religious groups? Not really.

Under Obama, the “faith-based” initiative, an idea that goes back to the days of George W. Bush, has continued to flourish. Obama even stepped back from a vow he made while campaigning in 2008 to require religious groups that receive support from the taxpayer to drop discriminatory hiring policies.

Mother Jones magazine reported in February that if Obama is hostile to religion, he has an odd way of showing it.

“But all the outrage about religious freedom has overshadowed a basic truth about the Obama administration: When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama administration has been extremely generous,” reported Stephanie Mencimer for the magazine. “Religious groups have benefited handsomely from Obama’s stimulus package, budgets, and other policies. Under Obama, Catholic religious charities alone have received more than $650 million, according to a spokeswoman from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where much of the funding comes from.”

Obama’s Justice Department hasn’t always pleased religious conservatives, but it has hardly been hostile to faith. The department sided with the state of Arizona in defending at the Supreme Court a private school tax-credit scheme that overwhelmingly benefits religious schools, going so far as to assist with oral arguments before the justices. When a federal court struck down the National Day of Prayer as a church-state violation in 2010, the administration criticized the ruling and quickly filed an appeal.

“If Obama is ‘warring’ against religion, he’s doing it with a popgun and a rubber knife,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told The Washington Times recently. “On core religious freedom issues, they have been moderate, to a fault…. It’s not much of a war.”

 
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