On May 24, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its 2011 version of the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Country Reports provide Congress with a detailed analysis of the status of a wide array of individual, civil and political freedoms in each country receiving U.S. foreign assistance and in all United Nations member States. Since the State Department produced the first Country Reports in 1977, they have included coverage of such internationally recognized civil liberties as the rights of speech, assembly, press, religion, movement, and participation in the political process – that is, until this year. This year, for the first time and without any explanation, the State Department omitted freedom of religion from the list of basic human rights covered in the Country Reports.
This decision by the Administration is highly troubling on two levels. First, in spite of many troubling reports by human rights advocates in 2011 of deadly persecutions against religious minorities in places like Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Indonesia and Somalia, the Country Reports for those nations remain disturbingly silent on the topic. It was also during this period that the Arab Spring erupted across the Middle East; however, due to the Administration’s elimination of coverage of the freedom of religion in the Country Reports, there is no indication of how Christians and other religious minorities across the Middle East have fared in the uprising’s aftermath. This glaring omission by the Administration sends the wrong message to those around the world who would kill, maim, and persecute people for their religious beliefs. The message is that America is no longer watching, and we are no longer interested.
Second, and more fundamentally, the Administration’s purging of the freedom of religion from the Country Reports seems to indicate a belief that the freedom of religion is not a basic human right at all – that it does not deserve to take its place alongside other fundamental human freedoms such as the freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble, the freedom of the press, and the freedom to participate in the political process. The President has said, “We see it as fundamental to our own interests to support a just peace around the world—one in which individuals, and not just nations, are granted the fundamental rights that they deserve.” Is the freedom of religion not one of those fundamental rights that all people deserve?
About the same time the State Department was compiling its religious freedom-free version of the Country Reports, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was pursuing legal action against the Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in Michigan. The Commission alleged that the church violated federal disability law when it terminated an employee of its school who held the title of “commissioned minister” and performed both teaching and religious functions. In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court released a unanimous opinion against what it referred to as the government’s “extreme” position in attempting to inject the power of the State into a church’s internal affairs. In rejecting the Administration’s argument that the church should be forced to either re-hire the minister or pay damages, the Court noted that the First Amendment prohibits the government from requiring a church to either accept or retain a minister it does not want. Why the Administration would even attempt to argue such a thing is disturbing. If the government can dictate to churches who they must accept as ministers to their faithful, then the right to free exercise of religion is rendered meaningless.
Just nine days after the Supreme Court released its opinion in the Hosana-Tabor case chastising the Administration for its unconstitutional overreach, the President’s Secretary of Health and Human Services issued the now-infamous “contraceptive mandate.” As we are all aware by now, that mandate seeks to force religiously-affiliated organizations such as hospitals, universities and charitable outreach activities to pay for medical procedures and products for their employees regardless of whether those procedures and products violate the religious beliefs of the organization. Failure to comply with the Administration’s mandate will result in crippling fines. As a result, at least 43 organizations, institutions and individuals across the country have filed lawsuits against the federal government in an effort to defend their religious liberty against another unconstitutional overreach by the Administration. If the government has the power to force religiously-affiliated employers to pay for medical services their religion finds morally objectionable, then the constitutionally-guaranteed right to free exercise of religion is dead. The Administration is basically telling religious institutions that they are free to believe as they want, assemble as they want and worship as they want; but, if they attempt to live out their faith in the world, they will suffer the penalty.
The freedom of religion has been a foundational right for all Americans since the birth of our great nation. As early as 1789, George Washington wrote, "Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." I join our Founding Fathers in the belief that this principle is non-negotiable.