Yes, you read the title correctly. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman makes the case for Barack Obama as a defender of religious liberty:
The president has gotten deserved criticism for trying to force Catholic colleges and hospitals to buy insurance coverage for something they regard as evil: birth control . But that’s only part of the story. In other realms, believers have found a Barack Obama and his Justice Department to be staunch allies.
Leaving aside the simplification about the HHS regulation (which doesn’t just affect Catholics and doesn’t just deal with birth control) and the oversight regarding the Administration’s losing argument in Hosanna-Tabor, Chapman (whose orientation is generally conservative) has something, but not nearly as much as he thinks.
His case for the Obama record boils down to two examples. First, the Obama Administration hasn’t given in to the urgings of the secular Left to abrogate religious hiring rights in government-financed programs. But while President Bush offered a robust defense of these rights, the current inhabitant of the Oval office has been quite timid, saying only that they would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. He’s not the opponent that Americans United and the ACLU would like him to be, but he’s a very timid friend. I also have my doubts whether the President in a second term, when he no longer needed some political support from folks outside the religious Left, would continue his passive acquiescence in provisions that have for the most part been in place since the Clinton Administration.
Chapman’s second set of examples comes from the Administration’s enforcement of the provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ( RLUIPA ), which passed both chambers of Congress by unanimous consent. To be sure, the Department of Justice doesn’t always enforce or defend laws vigorously (see DOMA, for example), but RLUIPA (like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act before it) has never been a bone of contention at the federal level. I would expect almost any administration to enforce it.
In the end, Chapman is right that someone like Rick Santorum exaggerates when he says that the President displays an “overt hostility to faith in America.” But the President is a lukewarm defender at best, and often switches sides. It goes without saying that there are many more reliable friends of religious liberty out there.
UPDATE: The Washington Post ‘s Lisa Miller also argues that Barack Obama is pretty friendly to religion, though, on her view, the “zealots” don’t really deserve it. As she seems to have misunderstood the religion clauses of the First Amendment, in her view religious groups are just like other lobbying organizations (only more hypocritical perhaps, as they seem to claim some sort of mysterious moral authority). Read the comments on her column only if you have low blood pressure.