George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, urged the president to honor religious liberty domestically in a Dec. 13 lecture on Capitol Hill.
After ERLC President Russell D. Moore presented him with the 2013 John Leland Religious Liberty Award, George set forth a specific step Obama can take to demonstrate his support for the freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment.
Clarifying he was speaking for himself and not as USCIRF chairman, George called on the president "to withdraw the mandates that threaten religious freedom in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act -- and to do so before being compelled to withdraw those mandates by the U.S. Supreme Court in the lawsuits now pending."
The Obama administration should adopt domestically and internationally, George said, "a robust view of religious liberty, one going beyond the mere 'freedom of worship' -- one that respects the right of religious believers and religious institutions to honor the requirements of their consciences without governmental interference, except in those circumstances, mercifully rare in our own country, where restrictions on religious freedom are necessary to protect the religious freedom of others or to prevent violence or other intolerable harms."
The center of controversy regarding regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services is a rule to implement the 2010 health care law that requires employers to pay for coverage of workers' contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortions. The abortion/contraception mandate, as it is sometimes labeled, provides an exemption for churches and affiliated auxiliaries but not for other religious institutions or religiously motivated, for-profit employers.
Nearly 90 lawsuits have been filed against the abortion/contraception mandate, and the Supreme Court has agreed to review appeals court decisions in two of those cases.
The Obama administration is not the only one that has faltered in defending religious liberty overseas, George said. The Bush administration also failed to use faithfully the process instituted by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). That law requires a yearly review and designation of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), a category reserved for the world's worst violators of religious liberty.
"Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders," George said, according to a transcript on the ERLC's website. "The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once" in its first term.
The CPCs named by the Obama administration in September 2011 were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. USCIRF -- a bipartisan, nine-member panel that advises the State Department, White House and Congress -- recommended in April seven other countries be added to the eight already on the CPC list, but the State Department has not acted on its advice. USCIRF's seven additional recommendations for CPC designation were Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
"The result is that some of the world's worst violators -- such as Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam -- are escaping the accountability that the IRFA law is meant to provide," George said during the Leland Award Lecture on Religious Liberty. "This is not acceptable. It is the president's solemn duty the laws are faithfully executed. And the requirements of are among the laws of the United States. Fulfilling these requirements is not optional."
The U.S. government also is failing to enforce IRFA-approved sanctions on CPCs, he said. In September, the Obama administration's failure to act enabled IRFA-affiliated sanctions on six CPCs to expire.
"And while these countries are subject to sanctions under other U.S. laws, allowing the religious freedom sanctions to expire sends the disturbing message that the United States will not implement its own law on religious freedom," George said.
He acknowledged the Obama administration has taken some positive steps on the religious engagement front, but he said those do not "address the question of how to stop gross religious freedom offenders from persecuting people."
Americans who care about the issue "have a job to do," George told those gathered in a U.S. House of Representatives office building. He said they must:
-- Explain to other Americans why religious freedom matters for this country and other countries.
-- Share with others the plight of persecuted religious adherents in other countries.
-- Inform members of Congress and the executive branch they expect them to protect religious liberty in this country and abroad, and hold officials accountable for doing so.
Religious freedom for all people is vital, George said.
"t is essential that freedom of religion or belief include the right to hold any belief or none at all, to change one's beliefs and religious affiliation, to bear witness to these beliefs in public as well as private, and corporately as well as individually, and to act on one's religiously inspired convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship," he said.
A country's defense of religious freedom, or lack thereof, can determine what kind of society exists within it, he said.
Studies "show that countries that protect religious liberty are more secure and stable than those that do not, and nations that trample on this freedom provide fertile ground for war and poverty, terror and radical movements," George told the audience.
USCIRF's monitoring of conditions overseas, he said, has uncovered the following patterns regarding religious persecution:
-- Government hostility toward religious individuals and groups, sponsorship of extremist beliefs, enforcement of anti-freedom laws and failure to protect religious minorities.
-- Christians are among those persecuted by governments in each of these categories.
-- Anti-Semitism persists throughout the world.
George, who now is a visiting professor at Harvard University Law School, delivered his lecture after receiving the award named after a Virginia Baptist pastor who was instrumental in securing religious freedom as part of the Constitution's Bill of Rights.
He expressed his gratitude to Moore and the ERLC "for honoring my own efforts in the cause of religious freedom and other human rights with an award named for so great a hero -- so great a Christian hero, so great an American hero."
Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., possibly Congress' foremost advocate for international religious freedom and the 2004 recipient of the Leland Award, said in remarks before George's lecture that religious freedom "is under assault in every realm" in the United States and around the world.
Wolf, who joined George in commending the ERLC's work, announced Dec. 17 he would not seek re-election in 2014 after 34 years in the House.
"As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves," he said in a written statement. "I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom -- both domestic and international -- as well as matters of the culture and the American family."
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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