Obama Catholic schools flap: Did he really call for end of religious schools?

Some critics say that remarks President Obama made on a visit to Northern Ireland this week amount to an assault on schools run by religious sects. But Obama also has defenders on this one – including some within the Roman Catholic Church.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Belfast Waterfront on Monday, June 17, 2013, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Obama was attending the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

Did President Obama just step into political trouble on a new issue, or didn’t he?

Some critics say that remarks made by Mr. Obama on a visit to Northern Ireland this week amount to an assault on schools run by religious sects – including the Catholic schools that are prominent in the US as well as in Northern Ireland.

But, at a time when the president is under fire on multiple fronts, he also has defenders on this one – including some within the Roman Catholic Church.

Here’s what Obama said in remarks about building and maintaining peace across sectarian lines:

“There are still wounds [in Northern Ireland] that haven’t healed, and communities where tensions and mistrust hangs in the air.” A little later he added: “If towns remain divided – if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs – if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear or resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.”

Since he uttered those words in Belfast on June 17, they’ve spawned resentment and opposition in some quarters – including among some US conservatives and Catholics.

“Catholic education is not the source of ‘division’ in Northern Ireland, nor are they a source of division anywhere in the world,” wrote Brian Burch, president of the group Catholic Vote. “Catholic schools educate children without regard for race, class, sex, origin, or even religious faith. The work of Catholic education is a response to the Gospel call to serve, not divide.”

The tiff over Obama’s words comes as the president has been struggling in public-opinion polls lately against a succession of problems, from controversies involving the Internal Revenue Service and citizen privacy to questions about his leadership on issues like health care reform and the conflict in Syria.

Mr. Burch has called on Catholics to sign a petition seeking an apology from Obama. The petition also refers to a “growing pattern of hostility on the part of this administration toward Catholics,” mentioning as examples aspects of the president’s health care reform law and a Justice Department argument to the Supreme Court against a religious exemption to employment discrimination laws.

But Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, has a different take on Obama’s remarks. He says critics have taken the words wildly out of context – if they’ve paid attention to the words at all.

“There are plenty of reasons to be critical of President Obama’s policies as they relate to the Catholic Church, and I have not been shy in stating them. But the reaction on the part of conservatives, many of whom are Catholic, over his speech in Ireland, is simply insane,” Mr. Donahue said in a Friday blog post.

“Obama was not condemning Catholic schools – he was condemning segregation,” Donahue wrote. “He was calling attention to the fact that where social divisions exist, the prospects for social harmony are dimmed. How can anyone reasonable disagree with this observation?”

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