Obama at Iftar Dinner: ‘Of All Rights We Hold Sacred, Foremost Is Freedom of Religion’

By Terence P. Jeffrey | August 12, 2012 | 11:47pm EDT

President Barack Obama speaking at the Fourth Annual Iftar Dinner at the White House, Aug. 10, 2012. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - President Barack Obama—whose administration is being sued by multiple Catholic dioceses, universities, charities and family-owned businesses for violating their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion—told a group of Muslims dining at the White House on Friday that freedom of religion is “foremost” among the God-given rights of man and that he intends to defend it both within the United States and abroad.
“Of all the freedoms we cherish as Americans, of all the rights that we hold sacred, foremost among them is freedom of religion, the right to worship as we choose,” said Obama.

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“It’s enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution--the law of the land, always and forever,” said Obama. “It beats in our heart--in the soul of the people who know that our liberty and our equality is endowed by our Creator.”

The menu for the Fourth Annual Iftar Dinner at the White House featured 'Thyme-roasted Natural Chicken." (AP Photo)

Obama spoke these words at the Fourth Annual Iftar Dinner at the White House. (During the Islamic month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. They then have a fast-breaking meal known as iftar. This year, Ramadan began on July 20 and will end on Aug. 19.)

In his iftar speech, Obama's phraseology seemed to define freedom of religion as merely “the right to worship as we choose.” The First Amendment, however, does not use the phrase "freedom of religion" or the word "worship." Rather, it expressly prohibits the government from prohibiting the “free exercise" of religion--meaning government cannot coerce people anywhere in their lives (whether in or outside a house of worship) to act against their consciences or the teachings of their faith.

President Obama did not use the First Amendment's term "free exercise" of religion anywhere in his Iftar Dinner speech.

(The First Amendment guarantee for the "free exercise" of religion, for example, protects the right of an individual to voluntarily convert from one religion to another. According to the U.S. State Department, however, this right is not recognized in some Muslim-majority nations. “Converting from Islam to another religion is considered an egregious crime under Islamic law,” says State’s recently released report on religious freedom in Afghanistan. Similarly, State’s report on Egypt says: “The government interprets Sharia as forbidding Muslims from converting to another religion.”)

Earlier this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius finalized a regulation, under the Obamacare law, that requires virtually all health plans in the United States to provide cost-free coverage for sterilizations and all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortions. A very narrow religious exemption in this regulation essentially only extends to houses of worship per se. Religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charities are not exempted. Private businesses owned by people whose religious faith forbids their involvement in sterilization, contraception or abortion are also not exempted.

Because the Catholic Church teaches that sterilization, contraception and abortion are intrinsically immoral and Catholics cannot be involved with them, the HHS regulation forces Catholic hospitals, universities and charities, Catholics who own businesses required to provide health insurance under Obamacare, and Catholic workers forced to buy insurance under Obamacare, to violate the teachings of their faith.

In June, the U.S. Catholic bishops unanimously adopted a statement explaining this fact and condemning the regulation as an “unjust and illegal mandate” that violates “personal civil rights.”

“The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values,” said the unanimous Catholic bishops. “They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing ‘services’ contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption. This, too, is unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

Since May, numerous Catholic institutions and business owners have filed federal lawsuits against the Obama administration, arguing that the regulation violates the First Amendment.  The plaintiffs include, among others, the Archdiocese of New York, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the University of Notre Dame , Catholic University of America, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), O’Brien Industrial Holdings (a Missouri-based group of ceramics companies), and Hercules Industries (a Colorado-based heating, ventilation and air-conditioning business.)

Notre Dame summarized the issue clearly in its lawsuit filed against HHS Secretary Sebelius, Treasury Secretary Timoth Geithner and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

“The Free Exercise Clause protects organizations as well as individuals from Government-imposed burdens on religious exercise,” says Notre Dame’s suit.

“Abortifacients, sterilization, and contraception violate the Catholic beliefs and tenets to which Notre Dame must adhere to according to the Church’s magisterial teachings and the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” says the suit.

“Notre Dame’s religious beliefs,” says the suit, “preclude it from offering health care plans to its employees and students that include or facilitate coverage for abortifacients, sterilization, contraception, or related education and counseling about those practices.”

“If the Government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the Government’s power,” Notre Dame said.

The regulation took effect on Aug. 1, and Notre Dame’s lawsuit and many others are moving forward.

Yet, when Obama appeared last week in Denver, Colorado, he was introduced by Sandra Fluke. Fluke is the recent Georgetown Law School graduate who gained national notice earlier this year when she appeared before the House Democratic Steering Committee to promote the HHS regulation and to criticize Georgetown for not providing students with health insurance that provides free contraception.

At the Denver event with Fluke, Obama boasted of the HHS regulation and claimed he had worked with Catholic universities and hospitals to protect their religious liberty.

“And now most health plans are going to begin covering the cost of contraceptive care,” Obama said.

“And listen, we recognize that many people have strongly held religious views on contraception, which is why we made sure churches and other houses of worship, they don’t have to provide it, they don’t have to pay for it,” Obama said.  “We worked with the Catholic hospitals and universities to find a solution that protects both religious liberty and a woman’s health.”

Obama mentioned nothing about the ongoing lawsuits against his administration by Notre Dame, Catholic University, Franciscan University and other colleges. Nor did he say anything about the ongoing lawsuits by Catholic dioceses and charities. Nor did he say anything about protecting the religious freedom of Catholic laypersons—who, as the Catholic bishops unanimously pointed out—will be forced by Obama’s regulation to act against their faith.

At the end of his White House Iftar speech, Obama noted the recent murderous attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

“The attack on Americans of any faith is an attack on the freedom of all Americans,” said Obama. “No American should ever have to fear for their safety in their place of worship.  And every American has the right to practice their faith both openly and freely, and as they choose.

“That is not just an American right; it is a universal human right,” Obama said at that White House Iftar Dinner. “And we will defend the freedom of religion, here at home and around the world.”

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