Last Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a court of appeals decision and declared that people who are deemed "ministers" are not protected from wrongful termination under federal anti-discrimination laws. The decision - and the role the White House played in it -- predictably spawned a new wave of hysteria from right-wing media figures eager to construct a narrative that the Obama Administration has led an assault on religion that threatens the very liberty the Court had just reaffirmed.
But that criticism whitewashes the role that the Bush administration played in launching the suit, and ignores President Obama's actual record on religious issues.
The case involved a teacher who challenged her termination by a religious school, claiming protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Court was asked to balance the church's First Amendment claims with the federal anti-discrimination law, with the Obama administration arguing in favor of applying anti-discrimination laws to the ministry.
Contrary to the overheated rhetoric that ensued, the Court's opinion made clear that existing precedents and competing societal interests had to be taken seriously in reaching its decision. In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed a prior Supreme Court decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia which held that religious organizations are not exempt from broadly applicable, general laws, but concluded that the earlier case did not apply to this one. He also acknowledged that the case involved the balancing of two important, and occasionally competing, values. As he put it:
The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.
To some observers, the Court's decision was a reminder that organized religion and the free exercise of religion occupy a strong position in American life, and that the Court's ruling should "end hysteria over religious liberty." To media conservatives, it fed into long-held delusions of the Obama administration's war on religion.
Because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had filed suit on behalf of the teacher during the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration's Office of the Solicitor General was obligated to defend the lower court decision in favor of the teacher before the Supreme Court. And that obligation provided an opportunity for right-wing media figures who don't want to hear about distinguishing arguably applicable precedents or striking balances between competing values to launch an assault on the Obama Administration.
One of the first salvos was fired by Ed Whelan of The Ethics and Public Policy Center on NRO's Bench Memos blog.Ignoring Justice Robert's invocation of competing, "important" values, he hailed the decision as a "Major Victory For Religious Liberty Against Obama Administration Attack." He then lunged for the political jugular, citing no less an authority than his own earlier blog post for the proposition that the Solicitor General's position was "remarkably hostile" to religion.
Others were quick to take up the cry. The Wall Street Journal editorial board accused the Obama administration of taking a "radical position" and demonstrating a "secular indifference to American religious sensibilities" before offering a "Hallelujah" in praise of the decision.
But, as is often the case, the high water mark of hyperbole would not be reached until the various tributaries flowed into the main channel of Fox News. Fox legal analyst Peter Johnson, Jr. saw the opinion as a "knockout blow to the White House" and imagined that "the founding fathers are smiling down at a Supreme Court that could not agree more about how wrong-headed our government is in trying to hijack our constitutional right to religious liberty." It all came together with Johnson's appearance on Fox & Friends last Thursday morning. Host Steve Doocy, ignoring the fact that the original lawsuit at issue was filed by the Bush Administration's EEOC, exclaimed: "The extraordinary part of this is that the White House itself would inject the Department of Justice into this thing."
These attacks on the White House are completely off the mark: Because the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had filed suit on behalf of the teacher during the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration's Office of the Solicitor General was obligated to defend the lower court decision in favor of the teacher before the Supreme Court.
So what is the Obama Administration's actual record on religious issues? To date, the Administration has:
- Established the first advisory council comprised of twenty-five leaders from religious and secular communities to issue recommendations on improving partnerships between the government and local nonprofit groups. This Council, which included religious leaders from the political left, right and center, issued more than 60 consensus recommendations on how the government can better partner with faith-based and secular nonprofit groups. The Administration has fully or substantially implemented over 70% of these recommendations.
- Led a two-year effort to improve U.S. engagement with religious institutions and actors around the world. As a result of this effort, for the first time the Foreign Service Institute has begun implementing comprehensive trainings on religious issues for new foreign service officers, and the U.S. Agency for International Development has institutionalized religious affairs training for its staff in Washington and in missions around the world.
- Organized an effort to bring young people of different faiths and backgrounds together on college campuses through service. The President's Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge has received commitments from over 300 colleges and universities - 200 over the initial goal - to develop year-long service projects where students from different faiths, including students of no faith tradition, serve their communities together. The Challenge is engaging students in meeting important community needs while building understanding across religious differences.
The facts don't support the right-wing critics' overheated rhetoric. The same hair-trigger impulse to stoke the fires of a culture war that gave us "The War on Christmas" once again gives rise to a conflict that exists almost exclusively in the minds of its promoters.