Religious Freedom

Does Religious Freedom Report Need More ‘Teeth?'

 Photo courtesy State Department/Public Domain via Flickr (

John Kerry releases the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. Photo courtesy State Department/Public Domain via Flickr

The Obama administration isn’t afraid to call out Republicans for playing politics on Capitol Hill, or Wall Street for runaway profits or insurance companies for health care woes.

But why, when it comes to protecting religious freedom abroad, is the State Department so hesitant to name names?

Watchdogs say the State Department missed a key opportunity to put teeth into its annual assessment of global religious freedom, which was released by Secretary of State John Kerry Monday.

Continuing a pattern begun under President George W. Bush, the report does not include a list of “countries of particular concern,” or “CPCs” — the diplomatic term for countries that either actively suppress religious freedom or don’t do enough to protect it.

National Day of Prayer: Text of Presidential Proclamation

Editor's Note: Below is the text of President Barack Obama's Proclamation for the National Day of Prayer. 

Americans have long turned to prayer both in times of joy and times of sorrow. On their voyage to the New World, the earliest settlers prayed that they would "rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work." From that day forward, Americans have prayed as a means of uniting, guiding, and healing. In times of hardship and tragedy, and in periods of peace and prosperity, prayer has provided reassurance, sustenance, and affirmation of common purpose.

Prayer brings communities together and can be a wellspring of strength and support. In the aftermath of senseless acts of violence, the prayers of countless Americans signal to grieving families and a suffering community that they are not alone. Their pain is a shared pain, and their hope a shared hope. Regardless of religion or creed, Americans reflect on the sacredness of life and express their sympathy for the wounded, offering comfort and holding up a light in an hour of darkness.

15 Countries Cited for Religious Freedom Violations

World religion symbols, nogoudfwete /

World religion symbols, nogoudfwete /

It can be hard to come up with a list of countries with the most egregious records on religious freedom when some of the world’s worst offenders aren’t even nation states.

For its annual report of violators, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom counts 15 nations where abuse of religious liberty is “systemic, egregious, and ongoing.”

But the commission, which was created by Congress in 1998 as an independent watchdog panel, also wants to highlight the crimes of non-nations, which for the first time this year get their own section in the report. 

State Attorneys General Push Obama on Contraception Mandate

Birth control pills, Christy Thompson /

Birth control pills, Christy Thompson /

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thirteen state attorneys general are urging the federal government to broaden religious exemptions for private businesses under the White House’s contraception mandate, claiming the policy violates religious freedoms.

Put simply, the group believes any employer who says he or she objects to contraception should not have to provide contraceptive coverage.

Critics: State Department is ‘AWOL’ on Iran’s Religious Freedom

Naghmeh Abedini, wife of imprisoned Iranian-American minister Saeed Abedini. Photo courtesy RNS.

Religious freedom activists scolded the U.S. State Department for not appearing at a hearing Friday on Iran’s treatment of religious minorities, and called for greater government action to secure the release of people imprisoned there for their faith.

“The State Department is AWOL — they are absent without leave,” complained Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative law firm that represents the wife of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American minister in Tehran’s Evin prison. “They act as if they are embarrassed about Mr. Abedini’s faith.”

White House Expands Religious Exemptions to Contraception Mandate

Birth control pack, Melissa King /

Birth control pack, Melissa King /

The Obama administration on Friday sought to placate religious groups by broadening religious exemptions and giving faith-based organizations more room to maneuver around its controversial contraception mandate, but the new rules offer no loopholes for privately owned businesses.

The contraception mandate, part of Obama’s health care overhaul, had set off an explosive church-state dispute and soured relations between the White House and some Christian groups, including the Catholic bishops’ conference.

The new rules, issued by the Health and Human Services Department, seek to address religious freedom concerns in two ways: First, they broaden the definition of “religious employers” so that all houses of worship and dioceses and affiliated organizations will be clearly exempt. Second, for other faith-based employers, the rules would transfer the costs and administrative tasks of the birth control insurance policies to insurance companies.

Poll Shows A Double Standard on Religious Liberty

RNS photo courtesy Barna Group, OmniPoll.

A poll released Wednesday by the Barna Group. RNS photo courtesy Barna Group, OmniPoll.

WASHINGTON — Half of Americans worry that religious freedom in the U.S. is at risk, and many say activist groups — particularly gays and lesbians — are trying to remove “traditional Christian values” from the public square.

The findings of a poll published Wednesday reveal a “double standard” among a significant portion of evangelicals on the question of religious liberty, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California think tank that studies American religion and culture.

While these Christians are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, “they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,” said Kinnamon.

“They cannot have it both ways,” he said. “This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation.”

Something to Celebrate on Religious Freedom Day

RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Matthew Harris Jouett. RNS photo courtesy Wikimedia

Today is Religious Freedom Day — a day to celebrate the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. Why celebrate it?

Celebrate because our government does not use our tax dollars to propagate religion, something Jefferson found “sinful and tyrannical.” This does not mean that you have a right to stop any government action that you happen to think violates your religious beliefs — a ridiculous claim repeated during last year’s battle over insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Obama at the U.N.: A New Religion Doctrine

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

President Obama on Tuesday gave a forceful speech at the United Nations, in which he challenged much of the world's assumptions about free speech and religion.

Here are five points from his address, which together, add up to as close to an Obama Doctrine on Religion as we've seen:

1. Blasphemy must be tolerated, however intolerable

The idea that the U.S. protects even vile speech, so ingrained in American culture, seems counterintuitive to much of the world. It’s an especially tough concept when speech targets a religion, but Obama argued that restrictions on speech too often become weapons to suppress religion – especially the rights of religious minorities.

Professor to Atheists: 'Stop Whining'

Professor Berlinerblau

Professor Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau wastes no ink in his new book trying to flatter his fellow nonbelievers.

"American atheist movements, though fancying themselves a lion, are more like the gimpy little zebra crossing the river full of crocs," he writes in How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.    


"In terms of both political gains and popular appeal, nonbelievers in the United States have little to show. They are encircled by cunning, swarming [religious] Revivalist adversaries who know how to play the atheist card."    

Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University biblical scholar who teaches a course on secularism, wants to rescue that little zebra. But his plan may be a hard-sell with some atheists — he wants atheist groups to drop their black-and-white opposition to religion and its adherents in order to preserve the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion.    

"The gimpy zebra remark was a little goofing on this over-the-top chest-thumping that emerges from Movement Atheists," he said in an interview, referring to atheist organizations with political goals, like American Atheists. "They wildly overestimate their numbers. They tend to overestimate the efficacy of their activism. They underestimate how disciplined and organized their adversaries in the religious right are, too."