Pres. Obama’s problematic proclamation for National Day of Prayer (3 May)

In the wake of Pres. Obama’s direct attacks on the 1st Amendment both in its religious liberty clause and freedom of speech clause, in the wake of the Pres. Obama’s bungling of the Chen Guangcheng Affair, I read this on


Religious freedom expert faults Obama’s prayer proclamation
By Michelle Bauman

Washington D.C., May 3, 2012 / 04:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A legal expert in religious freedom believes that President Barack Obama’s recent prayer proclamation reflects a wider problem of viewing constitutional protections for religious liberty as being limited to “mere belief.” [Remember that Pres. Obama, when quoting the Declaration of Independence, has left out the clear reference to our rights coming from God and that his administration has tried to reframe “freedom of religion” to “freedom of  worship”.]

“I don’t know that the president intentionally wrote it in this fashion,” [uh huh] said Robert Tyler, general counsel for the non-profit legal group Advocates for Faith and Freedom.

However, he explained to CNA on May 2, the wording of the proclamation “reflects a real problem” in the understanding of religious freedom.

On May 1, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring May 3 as a National Day of Prayer in the United States.

Since 1952, every U.S. president has signed a National Day of Prayer proclamation calling on Americans to give thanks for their blessings and seek divine guidance for the future.

In his proclamation, Obama offered thanks for a “democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.

Religious freedom has become a hotly-debated issue after the Obama administration issued a mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.

Critics of the mandate argue that the Obama administration is failing to respect the right to religious freedom, treating it as though it is merely a right to worship, but not to live out one’s beliefs. [Freedom of mere worship doesn’t allow for you to act on your religious beliefs in the public square.]

Tyler explained that the American founders “absolutely” intended for the First Amendment’s religion freedom protections to apply to actions as well as beliefs. This view was carried down throughout most of America’s history, he said.

However, in 1990, the Supreme Court held in Employment Division v. Smith that laws which burden religion are acceptable as long as they are “neutral and generally applicable,” he said.

This ruling “has created quite a problem for the free exercise of religion in America today,” explained Tyler, observing that it has led to the idea that religious freedom merely means “believing whatever you want to believe” and does not extend to cover conduct.

As a result, he said, there have been increasing attempts in recent years to burden the free exercise of religion.

But for two centuries before prior to the ruling “basically everybody understood” religious freedom as a broad liberty that extends to actions as well as beliefs.

This view is illustrated in the 1963 Sherbert v. Verner case, in which the Supreme Court held that laws imposing a burden on the free exercise of religion are subject to the highest level of scrutiny, he said.

This previous understanding, which was present throughout the vast majority of American history, is “much more consistent” with what the American founders meant, Tyler explained.

He observed that the First Amendment was written to provide a “really vast” protection for religious freedom.

Tyler also asserted that several members of the Supreme Court – including Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith – probably did not intend for the decision to be used in the way it has been.

He believes that if given the chance, the Supreme Court would likely attempt to “curtail the impact” of the 1990 case.

Obama’s National Day of Prayer proclamation, he said, reflects the “errant decision” of the Supreme Court in 1990, which should be abandoned in favor of a fuller and more accurate understanding of the First Amendment.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Johnno says:

    I’ve no doubt in my mind that Obama intentionally wrote things that way. Just like his intentionally Marxist communist slogan set to Hitler Youth music video: FORWARD!

  2. Dan says:

    While the administration’s rhetorical promotion of “freedom of worship” as opposed to “freedom of religion” is unfortunate, it is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny.

    While the article righly criticized the Smith case for burdening religious exercise, Congress acted to correct the problem in 1993 with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That law restores the “strict scrutiny” standard to facially neutral and generally applicable laws that burden religous exercise. While it has been struck down as unconstitutional as applied to the states, it has been upheld by SCOTUS against the federal government. The suits against HHS over the contraception mandate, for example, are using the RFRA as their main vehicle of attack. The law allows individuals/institutions whose free exercise rights are burdened to receive an exemption from federal laws, like the mandate, that are facially neutral and generally applicable.

    Also, while the RFRA does not apply against the states, most state constitutions have preserved the “strict scrutiny” standard that was rejected by the federal government in Smith. In my state of Ohio, for example, the constitution protects freedom of conscience, and the state courts have held that this protects any bona fide religious exercise under the strict scrutiny standard.

    So, yes, the administration does not understand religious freedom…but thankfully Congress and the courts still do.

  3. Austin Catholics says:

    It is really irresponsible of you to post a picture of Obama in mock Soviet propaganda. [It IS?!? Oh, I’m soooo sorrry. Really, I am! Sniff.]

  4. anilwang says:

    Even if freedom of religion were limited to freedom of worship, Catholicism *must* be understood in the context that freedom of religion *is* freedom of worship. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to show that “Sunday only” Catholicism has been explicitly condemned by the Church in nearly every age.

    Not only that, but the Benedictine “Ora et Labora” and Brother Lawrence’s dedication of every task to the glory of God make it clear that we worship God through our lives, our choices, and our work.

    The fact that this isn’t shouted from the rooftops both as defense against Obama and an admonition to Cafeteria Catholics is a clear sign that something is wrong with the Church today. We need more saints to call us back.

    Unfortunately Protestants (except the Amish and similar groups) have a much harder time if freedom of religion were limited to freedom of worship since the only reason a Protestant church exists (besides being a Christian social club) is to worship God through songs, scripture readings, and sermons on those readings (all of which can even be done from the comfort of your own home). This Ecclesiastical Docetism makes both faith and works distinct and worship and religion distinct.

  5. Supertradmum says:

    anilwang, I am glad you made some exceptions, as I have friends in the Bruderhof and they would be seriously impacted by a lack of religious freedom, as they live in community, which is clearly against some of the organization of the Obama ideal of big government. As a Black Liberation Theology adherent, Obama sees the same thing that the Liberation Theology people hold, that religion is materialistic, utopian, and messianic in nature, and that violent revolution brings a material kingdom of God. These ideas are in complete enmity with the institution created by Christ on earth for our salvation and well-being, the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

  6. RuariJM says:

    Austin Catholics – have to disagree with you, on a fair minor point (in context). That isn’t a faux-Soviet poster; it’s very clearly drawn from a Nazi Brownshirt propaganda poster. Ironic, given the skin colour.

    The more important point is the political one. There is absolutely no doubt that the Freedom of Religion argument is absolutely crucial. I’m not sure that the principle is supported or the cause aided if a religious organisation or a prominent figure within a religious organisation takes an overtly political stance. For that reason, I agree with your point.

    Sorry, Fr Z. You talk a lot of sense much of the time and I have found your blogs and commentary very helpful but I think you have got this one wrong.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    No, he doesn’t have this one wrong.
    The whole point of this administration pushing the “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion” is that they want what you want: no involvement of the Church – or ANY religious denomination of any size or influence – in politics. That gives them a free hand.
    Socialists and communists of every stripe always hate the Church. She is not only speaking directly in opposition to their cherished beliefs, she is competition – providing charity, and health care, and work, and spiritual support that socialists believe to be their exclusive purview. Not because they are motivated by kindness — they just want to stamp out the competition.
    The idea is to convince churches and their leaders that they have no right to speak out on any political issue — even when that political issue grows out of a direct attack on the church (as in the HHS mandate). Make them feel that it’s somehow improper or impolite or a violation of that mythical “separation of church and state”. Exploit their natural tendency to be non-confrontational and polite and not make waves . . . .
    And when a bishop recently pointed out that the methodology being employed here is exactly that employed by Hitler, Stalin, and others who set out to destroy “competition” from the Church . . . far too many well-meaning Catholics had kittens. Just like certain elements of the German churches just couldn’t see it until they were being carted off to the boxcars . . . .

  8. RuariJM says:

    AnAmericanMother – I shan’t engage in debate on what you say as I wasn’t criticising Fr Z’s text. It was fine – but, as the old saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. The overt political stance of the illustration lays the good Father wide open to accusations of political partisanship of a nasty kind – and, by extension, the organisation of which he is a prominent representative. It won’t be the text that is considered and debated on news shows, talk shows and on chat forums; it will be the illustration. It’s for that reason that I think it’s a bad idea.

    Reading your contribution briefly, however, I find myself prompted to commend to your consideration the excoriating criticisms of capitalism, as well as Communism, from both HH JPII and HH Benedict XVI (who, by the by, strikes me as a truly remarkable man. Both the Pope of Christian Unity and as the Pontiff who has done more than many of his predecessors combined to address, confront and deal with the scandal of abuse within the Church. His efforts and his office, as well as the Church itself, deserve more than the hostage to fortune represented by the crude political caricature represented by the illustration above).

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    Of course I’ve read JPII & BXVI’s criticisms of capitalism, which are in many respects well founded. Are you assuming that because I find socialism (communism by the drink as O’Rourke says) to be a pernicious and wicked doctrine, that I must be an advocate of untrammelled capitalism? An incorrect assumption.

    *No* political system can function without a moral and faithful people. As Madison and de Toqueville both realised.

    As for the resort to rather pointed humor in response to the president’s excesses, what else can one do? He is taking many of the same legal and administrative steps taken by authoritarian governments of the past, including Hitler’s, and he (through his surrogates) has directly attacked the Church in uncompromising fashion. But far too many Catholics have their fingers in their ears yelling, “La! la! la! I can’t hear you!” So it’s sort of like William M. “Boss” Tweed said about Thomas Nast’s cartoons — “my constituents can’t read — but they can look at the d—ed pictures!”

  10. Supertradmum says:

    AnAmericanMom and others, take a min and read my posts yesterday on socialism. I am watching the disestablishment of Europe through the socialist agenda. Whatever criticisms, and there are some, of capitalism by the Church, socialism is out and out condemned. I know I am preaching to choir, mostly. But, as France goes on Sunday, so goes Europe and so goes America. Obama is not a fascist, but a socialist and most likely a Marxist.

  11. RuariJM says:

    AnAmericanMother – “Are you assuming that because I find socialism (communism by the drink as O’Rourke says) to be a pernicious and wicked doctrine, that I must be an advocate of untrammelled capitalism?”

    No, although you seemed to leap to the reverse conclusion in your initial contribution on this thread. That, too, would be “An incorrect assumption.”

    I happen to broadly agree with what Fr Z said in the text. What I have said is that I believe that the illustration is an error. An error that could be used to undermine not just the particular argument in this post, but other strong and well-founded arguments further down the line.

  12. ContraMundum says:

    Except for minor details, the image which was altered could have come from just about anywhere. All pictures of national pride end up looking pretty much alike. A young man in uniform proudly striking a pose in front of his flag? Everybody does that.

    I do find it interesting, though, that Obama would be depicted as a Brown Shirt. I can accept the idea of not placing him at the very top; I take it for granted that the real power lies behind the throne. On the other hand, I would have thought he at least ranked up with Goebbels.

  13. ContraMundum says:

    Maybe this picture would be a better starting point.

  14. Pingback: Totalitarian democracy | Catholic Canada

  15. JKnott says:

    Bishop Jenky has been persecuted for intelligently pointing out that Obama is following in the same path as Hitler and Marxist dictators.
    This accurate picture of Obama is another vehicle of freedom of expression, and one that Obama is most likely proud of because he is no longer hiding his real agenda. Where was all the politically correct outrage when Bush was literally being called Hitler himself?

    If we are sending in donations of support for courageous clergy, then I think Fr Z and Bishop Jenky both deserve a $ donation in support of their moral courage in proclaiming the truth. We have everything to lose if Obama is successful in stealing the election.

  16. ContraMundum says:

    We have everything to lose if Obama is successful in stealing the election.

    He may not have to steal it. He won it fair and square last time, and with another weak Republican opponent it’s quite possible he’ll win it again.

    I agree that this would be very bad for the country, but it would be a misfortune we bring upon ourselves.

  17. wmeyer says:

    If Catholic–and Catholic bishops and priests–again vote for Obama in significant numbers, it’s not only the republic which is lost.

  18. JKnott says:

    ContraMundum : Very true, which is why the numbers so far are looking dreadfully close. Polls on the Catholic vote 46/46. Frightening.

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