Obama’s Cuba policy benefits religion at expense of secular groups

“Mr. President, we are concerned at the appearance that your order is establishing a crusading army of religious missionaries to descend upon the island of Cuba to religiously indoctrinate and religiously colonize the Cuban people.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a vigorous rebuke to President Barack Obama via letter today, protesting his unprecedented recent decision (White House Blog, Jan. 14, 2011) to single out “religious proselytizing organizations for preferential treatment and travel privileges to Cuba.”

The national state/church watchdog, with more than 16,000 nonreligious members, says the new federal administrative regulations discriminate on the basis of religious belief, “penalizing atheist or other freethought groups in the United States because we are not accorded the same privilege or benefit as religious groups.”

The stated purposes of the announced changes include to “increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.” (Italics added.)

FFRF charged the order creates the “free flow of religion rather than information” to Cuba.

In their letter, Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote: “The order seemingly confers the U.S. government’s imprimatur upon religion and religious organizations and individuals. It conveys the belief that there is a compelling foreign affairs interest by the United States federal government to convert Cubans to religion.”

Never since the Cuban embargo was adopted in 1963 have religious organizations been granted an unrestricted general license to travel to Cuba, even under such “faith-based presidents” as George W. Bush. In fact, Bush curtailed most travel, requiring specific licenses for both religious and secular nonprofits. Religious groups under Clinton still had to apply for restricted licenses, although they were long-term and more open-ended.

The National Conference of Churches complained to Obama last year, asking him to “end the restrictions on religious travel to Cuba.” (See letter.)

The order means church groups may travel without a permit or approval by the U.S. government, and may transfer “unlimited” monies to proselytize in Cuba. Groups which still must seek more onerous specific licenses include other nonprofit, charitable, human rights, humanitarian, educational groups and organizations advocating democracy or civil society. The general public, much less U.S. tourists, may not travel to Cuba at all.

Obama claimed his announced changes — also broadening categories of journalists, students and academics who could have unrestricted licenses — would “increase humanitarian flows to Cuba.” Yet, inexplicably, explicitly humanitarian charities (as opposed to explicitly proselytizing religious groups) are barred from seeking unrestricted licenses.

The FFRF letter cites Office of Foreign Assets Control guidelines (see pp. 37-38) that show preference for U.S. religious activities in Cuba that engage in “religious indoctrination and religious indoctrination alone.” Implicitly considered not “consistent with U.S. foreign policy” (see guidelines, p. 35) are religious activities that include medical and health services, and even those whose purpose is "inter-faith."

Asserted Barker, “No religious activities are ‘consistent with U.S. foreign policy.’ ”

“What is really dismaying is that the White House is privileging explicitly proselytizing religious groups over humanitarian organizations — even religion-based humanitarian groups, which, like nontheist groups, must undergo a lengthy and unsure application process and check in with the U.S. government to travel to Cuba,” commented Gaylor.

FFRF’s letter to Obama points out:

“There is no question that to some foreign citizens and countries, the action will send a message that the United States government is seeking to undermine the Cuban government and alienate the Cuban people from their government by bombarding them with religious doctrine. Mr. President, we are concerned at the appearance that your order is establishing a crusading army of religious missionaries to descend upon the island of Cuba to religiously indoctrinate and religiously colonize the Cuban people.”

FFRF called this action “an appalling abuse” of the President’s foreign affairs powers.

“It is a strange definition of democracy and civil society advocacy indeed, if the definition of democracy has been supplanted by religion.”

Barker and Gaylor wrote Obama that the United States has maintained its democracy “because secularism reigns supreme.” “It is neither the business nor the concern of the United States federal government to proselytize and evangelize the people of Cuba, or any other sovereign nation-state.”

“The President of the United States of America, who takes an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution, cannot perpetrate constitutional violations in the international legal milieu, which he is prevented from exercising inside the territory of the United States,” FFRF pointed out to the White House. The President may not “implement federal administrative regulations that make it exceedingly more difficult for the nonreligious than the religious to obtain federal government benefits.”

FFRF objected to the bad precedent Obama’s presidential action is creating. “What’s next? What if the President were to decide that it is within his foreign affairs powers to deny all black or Jewish U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba?”

FFRF’s letter asks Obama to “reconsider and rescind your order establishing a discriminatory preference for religion in the federal government’s administrative rules. The mass coercion and conversion of Cubans to religion is entirely inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy.”

FFRF thanks Sarah Braasch for her research and analysis of this state/church entanglement and First Amendment violation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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