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On National Day of Prayer, a question of religious freedom

President Obama said today that America "was founded on the idea of religious freedom" – an idea that legislatures and courts around the country are still actively working to define.

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East Texas residents pray on Thursday, during the 25th annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast at Harvey Convention Center in Tyler, Texas, in honor of the National Day of Prayer.

Andrew D. Brosig/Tyler Morning Telegraph/AP

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On a national holiday already loaded with tension, President Obama’s National Day of Prayer proclamation touched a nerve.

"Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and we have long upheld the belief that how we pray and whether we pray are matters reserved for an individual's own conscience," Mr. Obama said in the proclamation. "On [the] National Day of Prayer, we rededicate ourselves to extending this freedom to all people."

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The National Day of Prayer always inspires controversy, including efforts by non-religious groups to establish a competing “Day of Reason.” But Obama’s statement that America “was founded on the idea of religious freedom” raises flags not only because it comes on a day when the American Humanist Association publicly questions the coexistence of prayer and reason, but because the nation is actively struggling to define the role of religious freedom in public life.

Since the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally in June 2015, the traditional strongholds of religious conservatism have launched what The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson called a "red state legislative uprising ... to defend what they believe are values under assault from an increasingly secular society and government."

In recent weeks, religious conservatives have supported measures to make the Bible Tennessee's official book, exempt Mississippi business owners from serving LGBT customers if it violates their religious beliefs, and make North Carolina's restrooms a battleground for the transgender movement.

But Obama was highlighting a different role for religion in the public sphere.

"Through prayer, we often gain the insight to learn from our mistakes, the motivation to always be better, and the courage to stand up for what is right, even when it is not popular," the president said.

Obama has blasted political leaders who suggest Syrian refugees be barred from immigration based on religion, saying, "That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion."

In today's proclamation, he referred to people living under regimes that do not allow religious freedom: "The United States will continue to stand up for those around the world who are subject to fear or violence because of their religion or beliefs. As a Nation free to practice our faith as we choose, we must remember those around the world who are not afforded this freedom, and we must recommit to building a society where all can enjoy this liberty and live their lives in peace and dignity."

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The national debate over religious freedom is not limited to the legislative branch. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic non-profit claiming that Obamacare forces them to violate their religious beliefs by including contraception in their employee health plan.

"When is it that government has to act to accommodate [religious freedom], and when doesn't it have to act to accommodate?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor during oral arguments. "We live in a pluralistic society in which government has to function."