First Amendment No Longer Obama's First Priority

Stan Guthrie | Author | Monday, April 2, 2012

First Amendment No Longer Obama's First Priority

Most political pros and pundits will tick off what they see as the key issues for voters in the 2012 campaign. The economy, debt and deficits, jobs, gasoline prices, and Obamacare usually appear near the top of every list. Also appearing, but much farther down, are some of the so-called “social issues,” such as abortion, so-called gay rights, and, now, access to contraception.

Religious liberty, however, makes almost none of the lists, but it should. It is like the air that we breathe — taken for granted, but vital for each one of us. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yet over the last year or so, the Obama administration has been telling us that the First Amendment is no longer its first priority.

What is? We get some important clues by examining not what it says, but what it does. And according to a timeline of events over the last year just posted by Christianity Today, while there have been a couple of minor gains for religious liberty, overall the Obama administration appears to be pitting the free exercise of religion against sexual liberty — to the detriment of religious freedom.

The current push for sexual liberty over religious liberty can be divided into two main categories. The first is so-called gay rights, seen in everything from the redefinition of marriage to the rights of religious organizations to set moral boundaries in hiring decisions. The second is the attempt to force religious organizations to subsidize people’s sexual choices — choices with which they have profound moral disagreement.

This contest between “liberties” is playing out in the context of administration attempts to narrow the definition of who is included under the umbrella of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. In other words, it appears to be saying to a surprising number of faith-based organizations, we believe in the First Amendment — but not for you.

In a significant rebuff to the administration, in January the Supreme Court ruled in Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC that religious organizations are exempt from employment antidiscrimination laws. The high court noted dryly, “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization's freedom to select its own ministers.” Yet this is precisely what the administration sought. President Obama, to his credit, said last July that he has no plans to change an executive order allowing some religious groups to discriminate in hiring for religious reasons.

Other events in the timeline, however, bring less good news. Regarding gay rights, in February 2011, the administration announced that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, duly passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton, in the courts, though it is the Executive Branch’s responsibility to do this. DOMA defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman. “The move stemmed from the administration’s decision that sexual orientation should be protected by the highest legal scrutiny afforded by the 14th Amendment,” CT reports. “Many observers believe such an inclusion would allow the government to invoke a ‘compelling government interest’ in forbidding faith-based organizations from considering some sexual ethics questions in employment decisions.”

And indeed, this past October, the U.S. Agency for International Development began using new language in its requirements of organizations that receive federal money to perform humanitarian work overseas. USAID now says that it “strongly encourages” grant applicants to adopt its hiring policy of not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Several groups, including World Vision, sought language protecting their religious convictions in hiring but were turned down.

In December, President Obama issued a memorandum saying that ending discrimination against homosexuals is “central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights.” The statement directs “all agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons.” (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered.) A dozen Christian groups sent the president a letter asking him to clarify that a new LGBT “litmus test” for indigenous groups was not being mandated. The president did not bother to reply.

So-called gay rights are not the only challenge to religious liberty, of course. Regarding other forms of sexual liberty, last October the Department of Health and Human Services chose to defund a program run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to resettle human trafficking victims in the U.S. The USCCB believes the action came because it refuses, in accord with its religious principles, to provide abortions and contraceptives to trafficked women. It is worth noting that in December the president signed an executive order declaring that women’s access to “reproductive healthcare” during times of conflict or humanitarian emergencies is a matter of national security.

Contraceptives, sterilizations, and morning-after pills — which prevent implantation of a fertilized egg — are at the heart of a conflict with the Catholic church and other faith-based groups with Obamacare. Last August, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that employers must provide them in employee health plans. Those institutions that fail to go along face crippling fines. She held that churches are exempt from the requirement, but not religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities.

The Catholic church, of course, runs a huge number of these institutions. After a firestorm of protest, President Obama said insurers — not the affected institutions themselves — would provide the contested services. Catholic bishops, however, have said the proffered “accommodation” remains unacceptable.

In addition, in February 2011, the administration appeared to restrict “conscience clause” protections of health care workers who object to participating in abortions or the provision of contraception. While agreeing that such workers should not be forced to provide abortions as a condition of their employment, it said that the original rule is “unclear and potentially overbroad in scope.”

By this point, such actions should come as no surprise. As Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship notes, “Before the EEOC, [administration] officials have said in a contest ‘between religious liberty and sexual liberty,’ sexual liberty triumphs.”

So while hiring rights for some religious organizations appear — for the moment — to be safe, the First Amendment rights of other religious groups that minister in the public square appear to be under constant and growing pressure. This is bad news indeed for the evangelical church, which has spent decades attempting to shake off its fundamentalist, isolationist impulses in favor of a commitment to cultural engagement for the glory of Christ and the good of its neighbors.

Religious liberty may not be the hottest of issues this election year, but it may well be one of the most significant.

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at

Publication date: April 2, 2012