Steve Chapman

Catholic bishops, evangelical pastors and Republican presidential candidates have been decrying the Obama administration's war on religious liberty. Amid all the uproar, it's easy to overlook something equally important: the administration's many battles for religious liberty.

The president has gotten deserved criticism for trying to force Catholic colleges and hospitals to buy insurance coverage for something they regard as evil: birth control. But that's only part of the story. In other realms, believers have found a Barack Obama and his Justice Department to be staunch allies.

The most conspicuous surprise involves government rules for faith-based organizations that get federal funding for social services. President George W. Bush issued an executive order allowing such groups to hire only people who share their faith -- exempting them from the usual ban on religious discrimination. Liberal critics accused him of underwriting "theocracy" and "faith-based coercion."

One of the opponents was Obama. In his presidential campaign, he said his view was simple: "If you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them -- or against the people you hire -- on the basis of their religion."

But it hasn't worked out that way. Obama has left Bush's rule in place, infuriating many groups that expected a reversal.

They have repeatedly pressed him to bar these groups from using religious criteria in deciding whom to hire and whom to serve. Last year, the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) wrote the White House complaining that "we have seen no forward movement on this issue."

That's not the sentiment at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), which includes such perennial Obama critics as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention. It has taken the uncharacteristic step of siding with the administration.

"We commend your steadfast preservation of federal policies that protect the freedom of religious organizations to consider religion in making employment decisions," it informed Obama last year. "Mr. President, your appreciation for the good that religious organizations contribute on a daily basis to our society is evident."

In this instance, Obama may be accused of ignoring the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which forbids government support of religion. But if so, it's because he has given too much deference to religious freedom rather than too little.

Steve Chapman

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

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