Urge strong lay involvement
Outline threats to First Freedom at all levels of government and abroad
Call upon dioceses to pursue religious liberty fortnight, June 21-July 4
WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops have issued a call to action to defend religious liberty and urged laity to work to protect the First Freedom of the Bill of Rights. They outlined their position in “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom.” The document was developed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), approved for publication by the USCCB Administrative Committee March 13, and published in English and Spanish April 12.
The document can be found at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm.
“We have been staunch defenders of religious liberty in the past. We have a solemn duty to discharge that duty today,” the bishops said in the document, “… for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”
The document lists concerns that prompt the bishops to act now. Among concerns are:
• The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate forcing all employers, including religious organizations, to provide and pay for coverage of employees’ contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs even when they have moral objections to them. Another concern is HHS’s defining which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty,
• Driving Catholic foster care and adoption services out of business. Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities adoption or foster care services out of business by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.
• Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. Despite years of excellent performance by the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require USCCB to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching. Religious institutions should not be disqualified from a government contract based on religious belief, and they do not lose their religious identity or liberty upon entering such contracts. Recently a federal court judge in Massachusetts turned religious liberty on its head when he declared that such a disqualification is required by the First Amendment—that the government violates religious liberty by allowing Catholic organizations to participate in contracts in a manner consistent with their beliefs on contraception and abortion.
The statement lists other examples such as laws punishing charity to undocumented immigrants; a proposal to restructure Catholic parish corporations to limit the bishop’s role; and a state university’s excluding a religious student group because it limits leadership positions to those who share the group’s religion.
Other topics include the history and deep resonance of Catholic and American visions of religious freedom, the recent tactic of reducing freedom of religion to freedom of worship, the distinction between conscientious objection to a just law, and civil disobedience of an unjust law, the primacy of religious freedom among civil liberties, the need for active vigilance in protecting that freedom, and concern for religious liberty among interfaith and ecumenical groups and across partisan lines.
The bishops decry limiting religious freedom to the sanctuary.
“Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans,” they said. “Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?”
“This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue,” they said.
The bishops highlighted religious freedom abroad.
“Our obligation at home is to defend religious liberty robustly, but we cannot overlook the much graver plight that religious believers, most of them Christian, face around the world,” they said. “The age of martyrdom has not passed. Assassinations, bombings of churches, torching of orphanages—these are only the most violent attacks Christians have suffered because of their faith in Jesus Christ. More systematic denials of basic human rights are found in the laws of several countries, and also in acts of persecution by adherents of other faiths.”
The document ends with a call to action.
“What we ask is nothing more than that our God-given right to religious liberty be respected. We ask nothing less than that the Constitution and laws of the United States, which recognize that right, be respected.” They specifically addressed several groups: the laity, those in public office, heads of Catholic charitable agencies, priests, experts in communication, and urged each to employ the gifts and talents of its members for religious liberty.
The bishops called for “A Fortnight for Freedom,” the two-week period from June 21 to July 4—beginning with the feasts of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and ending with Independence Day—to focus “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” for religious liberty. They also asked that, later in the year, the feast of Christ the King be “a day specifically employed by bishops and priests to preach about religious liberty, both here and abroad.”
Members of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty include Archbishop-designate William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington; Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, of Philadelphia; Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta; Archbishop John C. Nienstedt of St. Paul–Minneapolis; Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi, of Mobile, Alabama: Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle; Bishop John O. Barres of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas; Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix; Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. Consultants include Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton. California; Bishop Joseph P. McFadden of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne–South Bend, Indiana.