Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religious Freedom in the 2012 Presidential Election

Stanley Carlson-Thies


November 2, 2012

By Stanley Carlson-Thies 

Below is an excerpt from a longer analysis of religious freedom issues in the 2012 presidential campaign, released as part of the Center for Public Justice 2012 Election Guide. 

People “bear ultimate responsibility to their Creator” and no human authority, including government, may rightly try to replace God nor constrain how people relate to the Creator,” according to the Religious Freedom Guideline. Because many believers “exercise” their religion (to use the Constitution’s term) in part via creating schools, charities and health clinics, religious freedom is due to faith-based organizations and not only to houses of worship and individual believers. 

President Obama and the Democratic Party strongly affirm the important role of faith and faith-based organizations in American life and in responding to need domestically and around the world stating: “our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires.” 

To the surprise of many, the Obama administration has in some ways expanded the faith-based initiative that President Bush championed. And despite constant pressure, the President has refused to ban religious hiring whenever a faith group gets federal dollars. These positions enable faith-based organizations to serve the community without having to abandon standards and practices they regard as essential to their faith convictions.

Unfortunately, other actions of the administration undermine religious freedom, including the religious freedom of faith-based organizations. The Health and Human Services department added a preference for pro-choice grant applicants to one program and then passed over the top-rated Catholic organization that had been its oft-praised partner.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID has chilled the environment for the participation of faith-based organizations by “encouraging” all grantees to adopt the same pro-LGBT policies that the agency itself has adopted.

The President advocates the redefinition of marriage without a serious acknowledgement of the vast religious freedom consequences of that change. Similarly, the administration supports “caring adoption programs” without admitting that this unreserved commitment will result in increasing numbers of faith-based agencies being driven out of service unless specific and strong religious-freedom protections are created.  And the administration has opposed school vouchers—a practical and constitutional way to support faith-based schools.

The administration has also encouraged the contemporary effort to undermine religious freedom by narrowing its scope. Both the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have substituted in official contexts the narrow concept of “freedom of worship” for the expansive principle of “freedom of religion.” The health insurance contraceptives mandate not only offends pro-lifers and institutions committed to the Catholic Church’s teaching about artificial birth control, but it has also led the federal government to divide religious organizations into two unequal classes: Churches—focused inwardly on worship and their own membership—receive full religious-freedom protections by being exempt from the mandate, while faith-based service organizations—oriented outward to bring many kinds of help to whomever needs the help—only have a promise of some lesser “accommodation” of their conscience claims.

The Republican platform has a multiple-paragraph statement on the constitutional principle of religious freedom and how that principle requires protection of the freedoms of faith-based service organizations. The platform criticizes the Obama administration’s “audacity,” via the HHS contraceptives mandate, to presume to “declar[e] which faith-related activities are, or are not, protected by the First Amendment.” That criticism of the contraceptives mandate has been reinforced by the Romney-Ryan ticket in public statements and a campaign video.

The Republican platform “pledge[s] to respect the religious beliefs and rights of conscience of all Americans and to safeguard the independence of their institutions from government.” That means never requiring any “healthcare professional or organization . . . to perform, provide for, withhold, or refer for a medical service against their conscience.”  The platform condemns action by states against “religious groups which decline to arrange adoptions by same-sex couples,” as has Governor Mitt Romney. Both the platform and Romney declare their support for school vouchers. 

The platform also says that the Republican Party is committed to upholding “the right of faith-based organizations to participate fully in public programs without renouncing their beliefs, removing religious symbols, or submitting to government-imposed hiring practices.”  The Romney campaign, however, has offered no details about these critical matters.  Also serious is another vacuum of detail:  The Republican platform affirms “the principle that all Americans should be treated with respect and dignity,” but it does not indicate how fair treatment for LGBT persons and couples might be achieved without wrongly narrowing the religious freedom of believers and faith-based organizations. 

Religious freedom, of course, is only one of many important issues to consider when choosing between candidates. And single-issue voting is irresponsible, particularly when considering candidates for national office.

Yet religious freedom is not just another issue.  It is a constitutional principle, indeed, the “first freedom,” a safeguard of conscience and a vital acknowledgement that government is not the ultimate authority. Religious exercise—protected by religious freedom—is not merely a concern of believers but a positive force in society, inspiring, sustaining, and guiding countless acts of service and hundreds of thousands of organizations dedicated to the care of others.

Religious freedom is a vital matter of social architecture: Will government become so expansive in its programs and in the rules it enforces that there will be less and less opportunity for individuals and organizations to live out in their practices the religious commitments they profess with their words? 

—Stanley Carlson-Thies is president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.  He also serves as a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”