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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Republican presidential candidates are debating again this morning in New Hampshire, barely 12 hours after meeting for their last debate. The candidates squabbled over spending, national security and military service. But on the question of religious liberties, they were in agreement. Newt Gingrich railed against what he called anti-Christian bigotry; Mitt Romney agreed. And Rick Perry promised to end what he called the Obama administration's war on religion. We'll have more on the debates later in the program. First, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty examines the argument that religious freedoms are under attack in America.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: If you're looking for evidence that the Obama administration is hostile to faith, conservatives say, the new health care law is Exhibit A. The law requires employers to offer health care plans that cover contraceptives. Churches don't have to, but religiously affiliated charities, hospitals, and colleges do. According to attorney Hannah Smith at the Becket Fund, that didn't sit well with the Catholic monks at Belmont Abbey College.

HANNAH SMITH: When the government said to them, you're going to have to fund contraception, sterilization, in violation of your deeply held religious convictions, the monks at Belmont Abbey College knew that they just couldn't do that.

HAGERTY: They sued in federal court in November.

SMITH: This is really about government coercion of religious individuals and institutions.

HAGERTY: Religious conservatives see an escalating war with the Obama White House. One Catholic cardinal called it, quote, "the most secularist administration in history." Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who heads the Bishops Committee on Religious Liberty, believes the First Amendment is clear: The government cannot make people choose between obeying the law and following their faith.

BISHOP WILLIAM LORI: If the government can force a church's hand, and force it to violate its cherished beliefs, then what's next?

HAGERTY: That happened, Lori notes, when Catholic Charities in Illinois shut down its adoption services because it was unwilling to place children with same-sex couples, as the state required. The Church also lost a federal contract to aid victims of human trafficking because the administration favored groups that provide contraceptive and abortion services. Lori says the government should accommodate their beliefs.

LORI: We don't have a constitutional right to a contract, but we do have a constitutional right not to be discriminated against because we're following our own convictions.

ROB BOSTON: I am tired of hearing religious right organizations or the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church play the victim.

HAGERTY: That's Rob Boston at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

BOSTON: All we're really seeing here right now is a very modest attempt from the Obama administration to put some controls on how some government money is spent when it flows to religious organizations. It's a very reasonable thing that quite frankly should have happened a long time ago.

MARTIN: Is the Obama administration hostile to religion?

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: No.

HAGERTY: Douglas Laycock is a constitutional lawyer who argues cases on behalf of religious groups.

LAYCOCK: I think they've aggressively protected religious liberty in some issues, and failed to protect it in other issues. But they're not hostile. The hostility is in parts of the political culture, particularly in the gay rights movement and the pro-choice movement.

HAGERTY: It's a larger culture war, he says, a fight that religious conservatives are worried about losing, particularly over gay rights. More and more people favor civil unions and marriage for gay couples and more states are recognizing them, prompting this assessment by Mathew Staver at conservative law group Liberty Counsel.

MATHEW STAVER: I believe the greatest threat to religious liberty is the clash between religious liberty and LGBT rights.

HAGERTY: Staver says as rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people make gains, religious conservatives are having to set aside their convictions. A court clerk was told to issue same-sex marriage licenses, despite religious reservations. A Christian wedding photographer was sued for refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding. Staver says these people aren't trying to impose their religious views on others.

STAVER: What people of faith don't want to do, however, is be forced to participate in something that literally cuts to the very core of their religious belief.

HAGERTY: Rob Boston says religious people cannot discriminate any more than a restaurant owner can cite the Bible in refusing to serve African-Americans. He says the solution is simple.

BOSTON: If you don't want to serve the public, don't open a business saying you will serve the public.

HAGERTY: Douglas Laycock says the culture wars have become a zero-sum game. When one side wins, the other loses.

LAYCOCK: The conservative religious groups want to take away all the liberty of the pro-choice and gay-rights people, and the pro-choice and gay-rights people want to take away all the liberty of the conservative religious groups and neither side seems interested in the American tradition of live and let live and protect the liberty of both sides.

HAGERTY: And Laycock sees little chance of a detente, particularly in an election year. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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