All posts from “March 2012”

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March 29, 2012

Religious Freedom Ambassador Settles into Role, Diplomacy

The former New York Baptist minister promotes international religious freedom.

Nearly a year into her stint as the State Department's point person on religious freedom, the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook has traveled to eight countries and seems to have moved beyond questions about her lack of diplomatic experience.

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"I had to certainly learn the culture of the State Department," said Johnson Cook, the Obama administration's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in a recent interview, "but I was not foreign to the issues."

She was in Abuja, Nigeria, not long after bombs killed dozens attending Christmas Day Mass. And she's been to Assisi, Italy, where she participated in an interfaith gathering organized by Pope Benedict XVI. But she still has many countries on her to-do list, including some of the State Department's hot spots.

Her initial plans for a February visit to China, which is designated as a "country of particular concern" for its religious freedom record, were halted when China denied her visa.

"We look forward to traveling and looking at a mutually agreeable time when it works for China and it works for us," she said, not addressing criticism that the incident made her office look weak.

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March 29, 2012

How Faith-based Groups Became Involved in the Supreme Court Health Care Case

Some groups made arguments on religious freedom while others focused on the individual mandate.

The U.S. Supreme Court listened to an unprecedented three days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) after receiving scores of amicus curiae or “friend of the court” briefs from outside groups. While most religious organizations and churches sat this case out, faith-based conservative political groups weighed in with arguments ranging from religious liberty to the legal definition of a “tax.”

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Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) teamed up with pro-life groups such as Americans United for Life to argue that the act violates the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. The ADF coalition argued that the individual mandate would inhibit religious freedom by “effectively forcing” individuals to pay for an abortion premium because they may be enrolled by their employers in plans that cover abortion. The ADF argued that others may be “forced to choose between insufficient plans that respect their conscience versus other plans that happen to require an abortion premium, but that may otherwise better meet their health needs or their choice of doctor network.”

Liberty Counsel, which represented Liberty University in one of the early lawsuits against the act, also argued that the act violates religious freedom, taking aim at the definition of “minimum coverage.” The law outlines a set of essential services that health care plans must include, and the details of these services are determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Liberty said that faith-based groups may be forced to choose between their religious beliefs and complying with the law, which may include the requirement to cover services like contraception that blocks uterine implantation or other services that violate the employer's faith.

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March 27, 2012

Global Aid Programs Take Political Back Seat

A change in leadership would likely mean a change in priorities.

Global poverty has not been the number one issue in the presidential campaign, though a change in leadership would likely impact the amount spent overseas and whether funds would go to organizations that provide abortions.

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Still, foreign aid has been part of ongoing debate in Congress over the federal budget as more than a billion people live under $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. Under the Obama administration, spending on aid to developing countries increased by more than $4 billion. His Republican rivals take positions that would likely change how the U.S. distributes foreign aid as leading candidates have taken a range of positions on aid programs. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, for instance, is calling for a $100 million reduction in foreign aid. In a debate last October, Romney said that he would support defense-related foreign aid, but he does not support humanitarian foreign aid.

“I happen to think it doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Romney said.

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March 21, 2012

Franklin Graham Meets with NAACP Leaders after Obama Remarks

Clergy from the NAACP had accused Graham of "bearing false witness."

Religious leaders from the NAACP met with evangelist Franklin Graham Tuesday (March 20), less than a month after they accused him of "bearing false witness" when he made statements about President Obama's Christian faith.

"All parties were in agreement that it is essential to our society and our faith that we refrain from demonizing Christians and people of other faiths when they do not agree with us," said the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, a NAACP vice president, in a statement released after the meeting at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.

"We look forward to continued discussions with Rev. Graham."

On Feb. 28, prominent clergy from the NAACP accused Graham of "bearing false witness" and inciting racial discord when he said he couldn't say whether Obama is a Christian and added that "under Islamic law, the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim."

Later the same day, Graham issued an apology, saying, "I regret any comments I have ever made which may have cast any doubt on the personal faith of our president, Mr. Obama."

On Tuesday, the evangelist and son of Billy Graham expressed appreciation for the meeting.

"While we may agree to disagree on certain political issues we agreed to work together against injustice both in and outside the United States," he said in the joint statement. "I look forward to continuing the dialogue we began today."

The statement said the leaders discussed "the use of faith as a political weapon" and creating "a new narrative about evangelicalism."

March 16, 2012

Texas Medicaid Funding Cut Over State’s Planned Parenthood Exclusion

The decision comes as states mull ultrasound laws.

The federal government announced this week that it will phase out federal support for the Medicaid Women's Health Program (WHP) in Texas, responding to the state’s decision to exclude from the program Planned Parenthood and other clinics affiliated with abortion providers. The WHP provides family planning, health screenings, and birth control to about 130,000 low-income women who are enrolled in WHP in Texas. About half of Texas enrollees would not be able to use their current health providers under the new Texas rules.

Cindy Mann, director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told reporters that the federal government did not have a choice. "Medicaid law is clear," Mann said. "Patients, not state government officials, are able to choose the doctor and health care providers that are best for them and their family."

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The WHP decision comes on the heels of a January decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to lift an injunction against a mandatory sonogram law in Texas. The Court ruled that a state law requiring a sonogram could go into effect while a lawsuit was considered in the district court. The law has received particular scrutiny because the requirement of an ultrasound would mean that women with early pregnancies would need a vaginal probe to conduct the ultrasound.

The cartoon Doonesbury has made the state's recently enacted law the focus of this week’s storyline. Artist Garry Trudeau traces a woman's experiences attempting to receive an abortion in Texas. Some newspapers have refused to run the cartoons because they equate the sonograms with rape.

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March 8, 2012

Pat Robertson Thinks It's High Time to Legalize Marijuana

The '700 Club' host echoed earlier statements.

Pat Robertson has again made headlines over his stance on drug enforcement, offering his unequivocal support for the decriminalization of marijuana.

“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Robertson told the New York Times. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.” His stance was similar to what he said on “The 700 Club” last week and other comments he made in 2010.

Robertson's position is unlikely to find much support among evangelicals. A March 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 41 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be made legal.

Three-quarters of Americans supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes. But support for decriminalizing marijuana was low among evangelicals. While 64 percent approve of medical marijuana, only 25 percent of white evangelicals said marijuana should be made legal, compared to 42 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants. Those unaffiliated with any religion were the most supportive of decriminalization, with nearly two-thirds supporting legalization.

While this is not the first time Robertson has taken this stance, he ran for president as a hard-liner on drug enforcement. After losing his bid to be the Republican presidential candidate in 1988, Robertson said at the Republican National Convention that the U.S. should be "a city set on a hill … where the plague of drugs is no more and those who would destroy and debase our children with illegal drugs are given life sentences in prison with no chance for parole."

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March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday Analysis: Romney Does Poorly Where Evangelicals Are GOP Majority

The GOP candidate wins much-needed states, but he is likely to face more resistance in the south.

Mitt Romney won six out of the 11 Super Tuesday primaries, victories that followed a regional pattern from past primaries. Romney has performed best in New England and the mountain west but he has done poorly in the Midwest and even worse in the southern states. In a closely watched state, Romney edged out Rick Santorum by one percentage point in Ohio. Santorum won in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota, and Newt Gingrich picked up a win in Georgia.

Beneath the Republicans’ regional split is Romney's failure in states where the Republican base is made up of socially conservative evangelical voters. In New England and other states where evangelicals are in the minority, Romney has been able to win over the lion share of the evangelical vote. The result is a double-whammy for Romney: in states where the GOP is made up of more evangelicals, evangelicals are less likely to vote for Romney.

In Vermont, Romney received four out of every 10 evangelical votes and performed similarly among evangelicals in Nevada. In both cases, evangelicals make up less than a third of Republican voters. In New Hampshire, where there were many more candidates, Romney received about a third of evangelical voters, equal to Santorum's share. However, in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, where evangelicals make up a majority of GOP voters, Romney received less than 30 percent of votes from evangelicals.

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March 5, 2012

Obama Warns of 'Too Much Loose Talk of War' between Israel and Iran

Poll suggests evangelicals want U.S. to support Israel in the event of an attack.

President Obama met Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning to discuss growing concern over Iran's nuclear weapons program. With increasing talk of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear capabilities, U.S. leaders caution against a premature military strike.

"The United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said as Netanyahu nodded.

Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Sunday, Obama said it was time to follow Theodore Roosevelt's axiom to “speak softly but carry a big stick.”

A slim majority of Americans said that the U.S. should remain neutral if Israel attacks Iran, according to a February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Forty percent voiced support for Israel, while only 5 percent of suggested the U.S. should oppose military action.

Among evangelicals, nearly two-thirds said the U.S. should support Israel if it attacked Iran. Evangelical support for the U.S. backing an Israeli attack was stronger than it was among mainline Protestants and Catholics, each of whom favored neutrality over support for Israel (52 percent to 42 percent).

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March 1, 2012

Senate Rejects Conscience Clause Change to Contraception Rule

The Republican-led bill would have inserted a broad religious exemption.

The Senate on Thursday defeated a Republican-led bid to insert a broad religious exemption into a federal mandate that requires most employers and health insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage.

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The largely party-line vote was 51-48 in favor of tabling an amendment that Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., had offered to a federal transportation bill.

Blunt and other Republicans had argued that the measure would protect the religious liberty of institutions such as Catholic charities and hospitals that object to contraception on moral grounds.

"It's not just the Catholic Church," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said during the floor debate on Thursday. "It's a moral and religious issue that should not be interfered with by the federal government."

In February, the Obama administration proposed a revision whereby insurers, not religious institutions, could provide contraception services to employees.

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