.- The U.S. bishops' conference has announced a second Fortnight for Freedom, scheduled for the two weeks leading up to Independence Day, to raise awareness and support for the right to religious liberty.
“The need for prayer, education, and action in defense of religious liberty has never been greater,” said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore. “The Fortnight for Freedom exists to meet that need.”
The pastoral initiative will begin with a June 21 Mass celebrated by Archbishop Lori at the Baltimore basilica. It will conclude at noon on July 4 with a Mass at the Washington, D.C., basilica celebrated by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl.
The first Fortnight for Freedom, held last year, included Masses, prayer rallies and other events aimed at prayer, education and action in order to promote and defend religious freedom.
Members of other religions joined in the fortnight, hosting events or ringing church bells in a sign of solidarity.
The two-week event is designed to “emphasize the need for conscience protection” and general religious liberty both at home and overseas. It will focus on a broad variety of recent threats to religious freedom, including those in the realms of immigration, humanitarian aid, adoption and health care.
Among the major religious liberty concerns in the U.S. is a federal mandate, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, that requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
While the mandate includes a religious exemption, it applies only to churches and their conventions, auxiliaries and religious orders.
Most non-profit religious organizations, including Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies, do not qualify for the exemption. After a one-year reprieve, which ends this August, they will subject to a government “accommodation,” under which the objectionable products will be included free of charge in the health care plans they offer. Critics argue that the objecting religious employers will still end up paying for the coverage that they consider immoral through increased premiums.
Archbishop Lori noted in his May 13 statement that the 2013 fortnight “occurs just weeks before August 1, when the administration's mandate coercing us to violate our deeply-held beliefs will be enforced against most religious non-profits.”
He added that during this year’s fortnight, “the Supreme Court's decisions on the definition of marriage will likely be handed down as well.”
“Those decisions could have a profound impact on religious freedom for generations to come,” he said.
In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two gay marriage cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor. One challenges California's Proposition 8, a state measure which recognizes marriage as existing solely between a man and a woman, and the other challenges the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Decisions in both cases are expected in late June.
In addition to the contraception mandate, the second fortnight will place a special emphasis on faith and marriage due to the Supreme Court rulings and their potential to impact religious freedom in a significant way, according to a statement from the bishops’ conference in December 2012.
A web page created by the bishops’ conference to offer resources for the pastoral strategy described the upcoming fortnight as “a visible, vibrant reminder of the God-given nature of religious liberty” as well as the right to live out one’s faith in the public square and the professional world.
Modern threats to the Church “call for increased awareness and formation, as well as spiritual stamina and fortitude among the faithful, so that we may all be effective and joyful witnesses of faith, hope and charity,” it explained.