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Religion Critics say President Obama’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation doesn’t line up with the actions of his administration | Leigh Jones

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President Obama
Associated Press/Photo by Carolyn Kaster

Religious liberty advocates mocked the Religious Freedom Day proclamation President Barack Obama signed Wednesday, lambasting him as one of the strongest opponents to the First Amendment ever to lead the nation.

Critics pointed to the Obama administration’s attempt to force religious organizations and businesses to pay for contraceptive and abortifacient drugs under the national healthcare reforms adopted in 2010 and the president’s lack of support for Christians facing persecution in other countries.

Religious Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the adoption of one of America’s first laws protecting religious liberty, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. Written by Thomas Jefferson, the law guaranteed the freedom to profess opinions in matters of religion and served as a model for the First Amendment.

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“Today, we also remember 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,” Obama’s proclamation said, in part. “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.”

Amy Payne, writing for The Heritage Foundation, said the president made “one heck of a proclamation,” considering his administration’s attacks on religious liberty: “Words that don’t match deeds from this president simply add insult to the many injuries his administration has caused people of faith in the past four years.”

Government lawyers are busy defending the contraceptive mandate in courts all across the country. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, 110 individuals, companies, colleges, and social service organizations have filed suit against the mandate—43 cases in all.

The president’s failure to mention the lawsuits in Wednesday’s proclamation shows just how little he understands the true meaning of religious freedom, said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund.

“Perhaps this mismatch between words and deeds can be explained by the phrase ‘freedom of worship,’ which the president uses in the first sentence of his proclamation,” Duncan said in a statement. “Religious freedom certainly includes worship, but it extends beyond the four walls of a church. If it is not to be an empty promise, 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 business.”

When talking about religious liberty, Obama administration officials, including the president, repeatedly substitute “freedom to worship” for “free exercise,” which is guaranteed by the First Amendment and implies that faith plays a role in all aspects of life.

The president’s critics also criticized him for ignoring the plight of Christians facing persecution around the world, particularly Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, who awaits what his lawyers call a sham trial based on trumped-up charges. After keeping him in jail for three months, Iranian officials handed Abedini over to a judge known for his harsh sentences. The trial starts next week. In letters to his family, Abedini said officials had threatened him with the death penalty.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department addressed Abedini’s plight for the first time, noting it had “serious concerns” about his fate. Abedini, a Muslim convert to Christianity, became an American citizen in 2010. He led the Iranian house church movement, which the Iranian government considers a security threat, before moving to the United States in 2005.

The president has not mentioned Abedini’s imprisonment or impending trial, according to Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice. Writing on his blog Wednesday, Sekulow urged the government to take action to defend one of its own. 

“Our first right as U.S. citizens is the freedom of religion,” he said. “Yet, when a U.S. citizen is set to go on trial before a ‘hanging judge’ in Iran merely because of his religious beliefs, the State Department and the White House have been virtually silent.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) did issue a call for Abedini’s release.

“The national security charges leveled against Mr. Abedini are bogus and are a typical tactic by the Iranian government to masquerade the real reason for the charges: to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve,” said USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett. “USCIRF calls on the Iranian government to release Mr. Abedini immediately and unconditionally.”

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