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White House leading attack on religious liberty

The Obama administration's attack on religious liberty embedded in its sweeping health care reform law is the target of nearly two dozen federal lawsuits, filed mostly by Catholic organizations. Why are we so mad? Start with a look at the Obama playbook that through four easy steps forces faith-based groups to pay to be faithful.

First, draft the health care legislation in a seemingly innocuous way by requiring an employer's insurance to cover women's "preventive care," and assure wavering congressmen that abortion-inducing drugs would not be included. Step two, after Congress passes the law, consult a biased group of like-minded medical experts and conclude that contraception is "preventive care." (Prevention from what? The disease of pregnancy?) Three, violate the guidelines on federal rulemaking and jam through regulations in a manner described by lawyers for the University of Notre Dame as a "regulate first, think later" approach — and make no attempt whatsoever to address the interests of the big players in the Catholic Church who self-insure. When challenged, scream, "War on women!"

Finally, create an exemption for religious organizations that is cynically narrow, designate a bureaucrat in the bowels of the Department of Health and Human Services to decide which religious organizations are sufficiently "religious" to qualify, and fine the rest who don't comply.

This behavior is nothing new. For three-plus years I have watched the White House faith-based office I once directed lead the assault on religious liberty and marginalize any groups not conforming to the administration's secular orthodoxy. Faith-based groups who for years ran successful programs had their federal grants stripped if they ran afoul of administration doctrine. The Pentecostal pastor chosen by President Barack Obama to lead the purge, Joshua DuBois, had solid credentials for mobilizing religious groups sympathetic to the president. He previously worked in Obama's Senate office and on the 2008 presidential campaign as his religious outreach point man.

Recently, the Obama 2012 campaign hired a new faith outreach adviser — Michael Wear — plucked directly from, you guessed it, the White House faith-based office.

Watching all of this is disillusioning for those of us who felt it is possible to be a good Catholic and a good Democrat. For the record, I stayed a Democrat the entire time I served as a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush, and I served previously in the Cabinet of then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. So I am no political partisan. Yet I found myself last November in Immokalee in a tiny government office near where my family just moved, no longer registering to vote as a Democrat.

I did this not only because I was alienated by the Obama administration's record on religious liberty, but because it had been championed by Catholic Democrats like Vice President Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and supported by virtually every single Democrat in Congress, beginning with the commander in chief.

There used to be good role models for those of us wanting to be practicing Catholics and good Democrats. Many of us uncomfortable with the socially liberal views of the party could point to Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey — whom I had the privilege of introducing to Mother Teresa of Calcutta to show her that not all Democrats were proabortion — and cling to the belief that indeed it was possible to serve God and Caesar, just as he did. So we lived our faith, stayed Democrats, voted Republican in the presidential elections and hoped for a new generation of Democrats who would model faithful citizenship in public life.

None emerged. Where are the Bob Caseys now? Never before, under the leadership of either a Republican or Democratic president, has the federal government bullied faith-based organizations into doctrinal conformance on an issue of such religious and moral gravity. The religious exemption the Obama administration has provided in its HHS regulations supports the conclusion that the president wants evangelical and Catholic voices out of the public square and consigned to roles on Sunday mornings. The so-called "accommodation" by the administration to shift the cost of abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization to insurers is a farce, an accounting gimmick. That is why groups like little Ave Maria University are in federal court.

Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action is a perilous precedent. Fortunately, America is awakening to this threat. You don't have to be a Catholic to see that religious freedom is under attack.

Jim Towey is president of Ave Maria University, a Catholic liberal arts college south of Immokalee. He previously served as assistant to President George W. Bush in the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. He was legal counsel to Mother Teresa of Calcutta from 1985-97. He also served as secretary of Florida's former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in the administration of Gov. Lawton Chiles.

White House leading attack on religious liberty 07/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 12, 2012 7:45pm]

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