Steve Chapman
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His commitment is also on display in defending churches against municipal governments that would prefer to do without them. Under federal law, houses of worship are assured equitable treatment in land use decisions. But mayors and community groups often tell churches to go to the devil.

When that happens, they often find themselves at odds with the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Last year, it forced the town of Schodack, N.Y., to retreat after it barred an evangelical church from renting space in a commercial area where nonreligious meetings were allowed.

It filed a brief in support of a Hasidic Jewish congregation's lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, which had forbidden it to hold services in a private home. A federal court ordered the city to back off.

The administration has also intervened in cases where prisoners are denied religious literature. After a South Carolina sheriff prohibited inmates from getting devotional materials and other publications in the mail, the Justice Department sued. In the end, the county agreed to let inmates receive Bibles, Torahs, Korans and related fare.

In doing all this, the administration isn't simply doing the politically appealing thing. Anything but. Those who endorse letting faith-based groups have a free hand in hiring are mostly religious conservatives who wouldn't vote for Obama if he resurrected the dead.

The congregations victimized by zoning regulations are too small to matter. Prison inmates generally can't vote. There is no detectable political gain in anything Obama is doing here.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock criticized the contraceptive mandate and opposed the administration in a Supreme Court case involving a teacher fired by a religious school. But on the faith-based hiring issue, he says, Obama has actually been "kind of heroic."

The president's detractors may continue to portray him as a secular fanatic with, as Rick Santorum claims, an "overt hostility to faith in America." Before they do, though, they might want to remember the Ten Commandments -- especially the one about bearing false witness.

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Steve Chapman

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

 
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