Obama and the Pope Defend ‘Religious Liberty’ – But Where and for Whom?
Pope Francis made an impassioned defence of religious freedom at the White House on Wednesday in remarks that were swiftly interpreted as a warning shot over demands for exemptions from the law on the grounds of faith.
The issue of “religious liberty” has become a flashpoint between the Obama administration and faith campaigners, focused on rejections of same-sex marriage and contraception provision.
The pontiff said that American Catholics were committed to “safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination”.
Efforts to build a just society should “respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions,” he added. “All are called … to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
Moments before the pope spoke, President Obama also highlighted the issue of religious freedom, saying: “Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. Yet around the world at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith.”
The US, Obama said, “stand[s] with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and intimidation”.
The comments were made against the backdrop of not only rising religious persecution across the globe but also increasing tensions between Christian bodies in the US and the Obama administration. Faith groups are demanding the right to adhere to religious belief in the workplace, even in contradiction of the law.
Although Obama sought to tie the issue of religious freedom firmly to global persecution, Christian campaigners and religious analysts said that Francis was clearly referring to domestic religious liberty. “It wasn’t a veiled reference to the situation in the US; it was very direct,” said Robert Kennedy, professor and chair of the department of Catholic studies at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota.
“[The pope] has taken consultations from bishops in the US, and this is something they are very concerned with. People are being compelled to engage in practices to which they have strong moral objections.”
America’s religious right has been galvanised in recent weeks by the case of Kim Davis, who was jailed for six days in Kentucky for refusing to sign gay marriage certificates in her capacity as Rowan County clerk, citing religious beliefs.
There has also been a series of legal cases brought over the requirement under “Obamacare”, the Affordable Care Act, for employers to ensure the provision of contraception under health insurance schemes. The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns which runs 30 nursing homes, has waged a long legal battle over the act’s requirements, which is now heading for the US supreme court.
“I know the pope has been following the Kim Davis situation. There is no doubt his comments refer to that and Obamacare,” said Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, which campaigns on religious freedom and represented Davis. “The Kim Davis case is very visible internationally and was brought to the attention of the Vatican. It’s not over, and it’s not the only one – there are a number of other cases ongoing.”
Staver expected the pope to return to the theme of religious liberty during the rest of his US visit. “I don’t think this is the last time he’s going to make statements on religious freedom; this is going to be one of his themes on this trip.”
According to Chad Pecknold, associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, the intention of Obama’s remarks was to link religious freedom to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East “and away from cases of religious liberty in the US”.
The president was also thinking of his legacy, said Pecknold. “There are some Catholics in the US who will remember him as an anti-Catholic president. The legal battles have been brought to the church; the church did not seek them out. Obama’s speech was a concerted effort to address that worry, and the pope’s visit is a chance for Obama to make peace with the church.”
But Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said it was “disappointing, but not surprising, that it appears Pope Francis may have felt forced to throw a bone to the lobbying agenda of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops”.
“When the bishops talk about ‘religious liberty’ it is a code word for the freedom to discriminate. American Catholics know that real religious liberty is freedom of and freedom from religion – it’s the bedrock of democracy in this country. No one should be persecuted for what they believe, and no one should have someone else’s beliefs imposed upon them.”