by Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Declaring themselves “strongly unified and intensely focused,” the nation’s top Catholic bishops vowed to continue their multipronged defense of religious liberty in the courts, Congress and the White House.
The five-page statement titled “United for Religious Freedom” was approved March 14 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Administrative Committee, made up of the USCCB officers and committee chairmen and an elected bishop representative from each of the geographic regions of the USCCB.
The bishops opened their statement with thanks for “all who have stood firmly with us in our vigorous opposition to this unjust and illegal mandate,” referring to the Department of Health and Human Services’ requirement that nearly all employers must provide free coverage of contraceptives and sterilization to their employees through health insurance plans.
“This is not about the church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the church – consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions – to act against church teachings,” they said. “This is not a fight we want or asked for, but one forced upon us by government on its own timing.”
The debate over the contraceptive mandate is “not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American issue,” the bishops added.
Nor is the issue about access to contraception or about “the bishops somehow ‘banning contraception,’ when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago,” they said.
What especially concerns the bishops about the contraceptive mandate and the narrow religious exemption to it is the “new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry,” the statement said.
“Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry,” the bishops said. “HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction – alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law – between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and university, and others in need, of any faith community or none.”
Such a definition creates “a second class of citizenship within our religious community” that could “spread throughout federal law, weakening its healthy tradition of generous respect for religious freedom and diversity,” they added.
The bishops said their Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty plans to publish a statement on religious liberty that will “address the broader range of religious liberty issues.”
The upcoming document “reflects on the history of religious liberty in our great nation, surveys the current range of threats to this foundational principle, and states clearly the resolve of the bishops to act strongly, in concert with our fellow citizens, in its defense.”
The bishops closed their statement by calling on Catholics and other people of faith “to join us in prayer and penance for our leaders and for the complete protection of our first freedom – religious liberty – which is not only protected in the laws and customs of our great nation, but rooted in the teachings of our great tradition.”
“Prayer is the ultimate source of our strength – for without God, we can do nothing; but with God, all things are possible,” they added.
(The full statement is available at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/Admin-Religious-Freedom.pdf.)
The Obama administration’s definition of religious institutions that could be exempt from the new federal health care mandate on contraception appears “here to stay” and “non-negotiable” according to a U.S. bishop who met with White House officials on the same day the bishops issued their statement.
“We find that to be distressing and it does not bode well for future discussions,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, who attended the meeting along with Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, immediate past chairman of the bishops’ domestic policy committee.
The meeting was the first with U.S. bishops and White House officials since Feb. 10 when President Barack Obama announced revisions to the contraceptive mandate issued by Health and Human Services in January.
When asked about the meeting by Catholic News Service, a White House spokesman offered no comment and could only confirm the meeting took place.
Bishop Lori told CNS in a March 16 telephone interview that the meeting provided the opportunity for the “administration to know that the staff of the bishops’ conference has been accurately conveying concerns of the bishops, and it was an opportunity for the bishops to experience personally the headwinds that the senior staff of USCCB has been experiencing.”
He said the meeting was more one of “ironing out wrinkles, not a fundamental change of course.” He also said the administration wanted to tell the bishops that there will likely be “another round of rule making” in the federal health plan and will be seeking comments.
Bishop Lori said he would like the administration to discuss the federal health plan on its principle and also not deal with the church in a segmented way.
The administration has been meeting with Catholic groups separately on this issue, “talking with the bishops on Tuesday, the Catholic Health Association on Wednesday and other groups another day.”
“All Catholic stakeholders should be at same table” or attending these White House sessions at the same time, “in order to respect the Catholic Church in its complexity,” he added.[hr]
Contibuting to this piece was Carol Zimmerman, a reporter for Catholic News Service.