Obama at Iftar Dinner: ‘Of All Rights We Hold Sacred, Foremost Is Freedom of Religion’
by TERRANCE JEFFREY
August 13, 2012
President Barack Obama-whose administration is being sued by multiple Catholic dioceses, universities, charities and family-owned businesses for violating their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion-told a group of Muslims dining at the White House on Friday that freedom of religion is "foremost" among the God-given rights of man and that he intends to defend it both within the United States and abroad.
"Of all the freedoms we cherish as Americans, of all the rights that we hold sacred, foremost among them is freedom of religion, the right to worship as we choose," said Obama.
"It's enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution--the law of the land, always and forever," said Obama. "It beats in our heart--in the soul of the people who know that our liberty and our equality is endowed by our Creator."
Obama spoke these words at the Fourth Annual Iftar Dinner at the White House. (During the Islamic month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. They then have a fast-breaking meal known as iftar. This year, Ramadan began on July 20 and will end on Aug. 19.)
In his iftar speech, Obama's phraseology seemed to define freedom of religion as merely "the right to worship as we choose." The First Amendment, however, does not use the phrase "freedom of religion" or the word "worship." Rather, it expressly prohibits the government from prohibiting the "free exercise" of religion--meaning government cannot coerce people anywhere in their lives (whether in or outside a house of worship) to act against their consciences or the teachings of their faith.
President Obama did not use the First Amendment's term "free exercise" of religion anywhere in his Iftar Dinner speech.
(The First Amendment guarantee for the "free exercise" of religion, for example, protects the right of an individual to voluntarily convert from one religion to another. According to the U.S. State Department, however, this right is not recognized in some Muslim-majority nations. "Converting from Islam to another religion is considered an egregious crime under Islamic law," says State's recently released report on religious freedom in Afghanistan. Similarly, State's report on Egypt says: "The government interprets Sharia as forbidding Muslims from converting to another religion.")
Earlier this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius finalized a regulation, under the Obamacare law, that requires virtually all health plans in the United States to provide cost-free coverage for sterilizations and all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortions. A very narrow religious exemption in this regulation essentially only extends to houses of worship per se. Religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charities are not exempted. Private businesses owned by people whose religious faith forbids their involvement in sterilization, contraception or abortion are also not exempted.
Because the Catholic Church teaches that sterilization, contraception and abortion are intrinsically immoral and Catholics cannot be involved with them, the HHS regulation forces Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, Catholics who own businesses required to provide health insurance under Obamacare, and Catholic workers forced to buy insurance under Obamacare, to violate the teachings of their faith.
In June, the U.S. Catholic bishops unanimously adopted a statement explaining this fact and condemning the regulation as an "unjust and illegal mandate" that violates "personal civil rights."
"The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values," said the unanimous Catholic bishops. "They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing ‘services' contrary to those values-whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves-without even the semblance of an exemption. This, too, is unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions."
Since May, numerous Catholic institutions and business owners have filed federal lawsuits against the Obama administration, arguing that the regulation violates the First Amendment. The plaintiffs include, among others, the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the University of Notre Dame , Catholic University of America, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), O'Brien Industrial Holdings (a Missouri-based group of ceramics companies), and Hercules Industries (a Colorado-based heating, ventilation and air-conditioning business.)
Notre Dame summarized the issue clearly in its lawsuit filed against HHS Secretary Sebelius, Treasury Secretary Timoth Geithner and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.