.- Emerging threats to religious freedom have inspired the U.S. bishops to establish a new committee for its protection. Its chairman sees government taking God's place as the source of the “first freedom.”
Bridgeport Bishop William E. Lori told CNA on Sept. 30 that a “principal and overarching error,” connecting several different threats to the free exercise of faith, is “the view that it is the state that grants religious liberty, and not God.”
Bishop Lori was announced as chairman of the new committee in a Sept. 29 letter from U.S. bishops' conference president Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
“Even though religious liberty is enshrined at the head of the Bill of Rights, in the First Amendment, there is an increasing tendency to make it a lesser right – and to make it quite relative to other, 'newly-discovered' rights in our law and in our culture,” said the Connecticut bishop, whose 2010 pastoral letter “Let Freedom Ring” addressed the subject of state intrusion against believers.
The chair of the new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty said respect for “religion as a merely private affair” remains largely intact.
But he warned that the “institutional conscience” of religious hospitals and similar establishments is being threatened at high levels – as are the conscience rights of individuals in “clutch situations” like filling prescriptions or issuing marriage licenses.
“Their rights are being trampled upon,” said Bishop Lori.
In his letter announcing the new committee's formation, Archbishop Dolan said that the “basic right” to religious freedom “is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America,” especially from an “an increasing number of federal government programs or policies that would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith.”
Archbishop Dolan outlined current threats to religious liberty, starting with federal regulations proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services which would mandate coverage of contraception and sterilization in nearly all new health plans, including those of most religious employers.
HHS has also demanded that the Church's Migration and Refugee Services provide what it calls the “full range of reproductive services”—a reference to contraception and abortion—to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors.
Archbishop Dolan additionally cited Catholic Relief Services' concern that USAID, under the Department of State, is increasingly requiring HIV prevention activities such as condom distribution “within a range of international relief and development programs.”
He also lamented the federal Department of Justice 's ongoing “attack” on the Defense of Marriage Act, with the department claiming that supporters of the law “could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice.”
“If the label of bigot sticks to us—especially in court—because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result,” he warned.
Archbishop Dolan said that the establishment of the religious liberty committee signals “a new moment” in the history of the conference.
“Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider,” he said. “If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave.”
The committee has effectively begun and will report its activities to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during its fall assembly in November.