Steve Chapman
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a new TV spot accusing President Obama of waging "war on religion." It's a reckless, overstated spot that exploits prejudice against gays while deliberately distorting major issues. But here's the surprise: Perry has a point.

The First Amendment forbids any law "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. It's a broad statement, which is open to interpretation on the details of implementation. But on the fundamental message -- that individuals should be allowed to follow their religious beliefs as long as they don't infringe on the rights of others -- there is no room for doubt.

Perry's campaign supports his charge with several examples. Some are bogus, such as Obama's decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbids federal recognition of same-sex unions.

That decision doesn't tread on the rights of any believer. Those who think gay marriage is a violation of God's law -- like those who think adultery is a violation of God's law -- are free to spurn it.

Perry also takes offense that after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," military chaplains are allowed to preside at same-sex weddings. If they were required to do so, he would have cause to gripe. But they're not.

As for the absence of officially sponsored prayer in schools, Perry shouldn't blame Obama. He should blame the Supreme Court, which pronounced such exercises unconstitutional half a century ago.

But look far enough in this pile of chaff and you find some wheat. On two major issues cited by Perry, Obama has broken with precedent to curtail religious freedom in a way that should alarm staunch secularists (like myself) as well as the devout.

The first instance arose after passage of his health care overhaul, when the Department of Health and Human Services ordered that all insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization for women, with no co-payment. The mandate means many Americans would have to be complicit in something their faith forbids.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out, "Before the mandate, insurers were free to issue plans covering contraception and sterilization (or not); employers were free to sponsor, and usually subsidize, plans with this coverage (or not); and employees were free to choose this coverage and pay for it through their premiums (or not)." That is no longer true.

The administration provides an exemption for religious employers -- while defining the term so tightly that religious hospitals, social service agencies and colleges wouldn't qualify.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate