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
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
CNA 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.
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
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,” she cautioned.