As Shakespeare once wrote, “What’s past is prologue,” and that seems increasingly true under the coming administration of former Vice President Joe Biden.
It appears the looming Biden administration will be a greatest hits album from the left: a return to the career diplomats and advisers who, under former President Barack Obama, created the climate for outgoing President Donald Trump.
For weeks now, so many have been saying there’s no need for concern on the religious liberty front, arguing Biden has no intention of stopping Americans from going to church or synagogue. And on it’s face, that certainly appears to be the case. But that’s not the problem. The fear isn’t that there will be immediately obvious assaults on religious freedom. Rather, there is a disquieting sense Biden will — as he’s forecasted — embrace the covert religious liberty assaults that were a hallmark of Obama’s two terms in the White House.
While the Obama administration certainly didn’t hide its myriad intrusions on religious practice and conviction, it enjoyed a legacy media that downplayed or outright denied the existence of such encroachments.
Here are just a handful of the ways the Obama-Biden administration overstepped its bounds on Americans’ religious liberties:
IRS targeted conservative, Christian groups
When reports of the IRS scandal first arose nearly eight years ago, Terry Moran, a senior national correspondent for ABC News, described it as “a truly Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama administration.” While the press initially pursued the federal agency’s intentional targeting of politically conservative and Christian groups as a big deal, reporters quickly moved to downplay the issue once Obama called it a “phony scandal.”
Under the Obama presidency, it was revealed in 2013, the IRS maliciously targeted conservative and Christian groups seeking tax-exempt status by slow-walking their applications or overburdening them with onerous questions, even demanding one pro-life group provide the government with the contents of its prayers — an action now-former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen later admitted was “totally inappropriate.”
The Rev. Franklin Graham, who runs both the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said the IRS targeted both of the nonprofit groups he leads. In a 2013 letter to then-President Obama, Graham said he doesn’t believe the burdensome audits by the IRS were “a coincidence — or justifiable,” given revelations the agency had reportedly singled out groups with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names.
“I am bringing this to your attention because I believe that someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us,” wrote Graham. “This is morally wrong and unethical — indeed some would call it ‘un-American.’”
During the investigation into the wrongdoing, which head honchos at the IRS attempted to pin on a handful of low-level staffers in Cincinnati, the federal organization claimed a computer crash irrevocably erased critical emails, despite requirements listed in the IRS manual mandating backups of all correspondence.
Education Department issued chilling Title IX guidance
In the waining months of Obama’s second term, his Department of Education weaponized Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, to redefine “sex discrimination” — which is federally prohibited — to include sexual orientation and gender identity. At the same time, the Obama administration complied with a request from the progressive, pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign to publicly list all the colleges and universities that have requested religious exemption from that Title IX directive. The HRC described the list as a compilation of “education institutions who have received an exemption from federal civil rights laws in order to discriminate against LGBT students.”
Obama’s unilaterally issued guidance, which granted universal Title IX-level protections to transgender people, caused a chilling effect among faith-based institutions.
Here’s how Andrew Walker, a professor of ethics and public theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, described it in 2016:
This wonky policy suggestion is purportedly intended to generate greater transparency, but the effects and motive behind it are far more chilling. With the Department of Education bowing to the agenda of activists, a new page has been turned in the Left’s zero-sum assault on religious liberty.
Waivers exist under Title IX that allow religious colleges to seek exemptions from some federal non-discrimination statutes. This isn’t about allowing religious schools to discriminate against women or bar minorities from admittance. That type of discrimination is “invidious” — and prohibited. Rather, these waivers allow Christian colleges the ability to enforce long-held Christian moral expectations about sex, marriage, and gender as a condition of admittance and attendance.
As Walker went on to point out, the Obama-era guidance raised serious concerns among faith-based institutions that, at some point, the federal government would make tax exemption and funding contingent upon the full embrace of directives like the redefinition of “sex” in Title IX.
The Trump administration reversed the Obama-era Title IX guidance in 2017.
Obamacare violated sincere religious convictions on abortion
While it was argued by the Obama administration that the Affordable Care Act included an “accommodation” for faith-based organizations with religious objections to abortion, it’s clear upon closer examination the verbiage was actually just a weak attempt to sidestep charges that the health care law violated Americans’ religious freedoms.
It is true there was as an “accommodation,” but here’s what it did: Rather than grant a genuine waiver for the contraceptive mandate to faith-based organizations and businesses, it simply removed from them the burden to pay for the contraceptive care, which in many cases includes abortifacients. The cost was then passed on to insurance companies, which would still provide the coverage to which the Christian organizations objected. In 2012, Becket, a religious liberty law firm representing several Christian groups fighting the contraceptive mandate, described Obama’s “accommodation” as “silly” and a “fake compromise.”
A true exemption would have allowed faith-based companies to enter into a contract with health care providers that adhered to the organizations’ religious convictions, i.e. not providing the contraceptive care in question at all.
As a result of the religious infringement of the ACA, cases regarding the controversial law have made their way to the Supreme Court a handful of times. In 2014, for example, the high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Christian-owned arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby — and small businesses with similar religious objections — can refuse to pay for employees’ contraceptive care.
In July of this year, the Supreme Court sided with the Trump administration, which has taken steps to expand allowances for employers with religious convictions to be exempted from the ACA’s birth control mandate. That case centered on a group of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor, which has been fighting the contraceptive mandate for seven years. The group had won its case but then ended up back in the courts when Pennsylvania tried to force the Catholic institution, once again, into violating its religiously motivated pro-life views.
“For over 150 years,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, “the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. … But for the past seven years, they — like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision — have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Becket described the court’s ruling as “a victory.”
“America deserves better than petty governments harassing nuns,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket. “The court did the right thing by protecting the Little Sisters from an unnecessary mandate that would have gutted their ministry.”
HHS violated religious rights of Christian adoption, foster care agencies
In the final days of his presidency, Obama barred adoption and foster care agencies from receiving federal funding if they refused to place children with same-sex couples, a decision that not only discriminated against Christian organizations but severely harmed the likelihood of children finding foster homes and adoptive parents.
Russel Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argued in a 2019 column for the Wall Street Journal that the Obama-era regulation “effectively barred from federal child-welfare programs organizations that believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
“[C]ountless evangelical Christians devote their lives to foster care, adoption, and similar services for vulnerable children,” he wrote. “but those who want to live out these convictions frequently find themselves stopped by the government.”
The Obama-era rule, a clear-cut case of infringement of religious liberty, was obviously harmful to children in that it greatly decreased the number of homes available to kids in need. For example, the city of Philadelphia barred Catholic Social Services from placing children in homes in March 2018 because of the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage. City leaders made the decision to terminate the partnership with CSS just days after it put out an urgent call for 300 families to provide foster care to help with the influx of children coming into the system as a result of the opioid crisis.
“This doesn’t just cripple religious agencies, which is certainly the intent,” wrote Washington Examiner columnist Kaylee McGhee. “It ostracizes and hurts thousands of children who become nothing more than collateral damage in the state’s attempt to enforce a politically correct agenda.”
In November 2019, the Trump administration repealed the discriminatory regulation.
When Obama was elected after eight years of former President George W. Bush, Americans were eager for the “hope and change” he promised. But soon after Obama’s administration began, hokey billboards started cropping up, featuring photos of Bush along with the three-word question: “Miss me yet?”
One has to wonder — particularly when it comes to religious liberty — if Americans will feel similarly about Trump. Only time will tell.