.- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has voted to reauthorize its Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for a second three-year term.
The unanimous voice vote came June 11, the first day of the U.S. bishops’ Spring General Assembly in New Orleans.
As an ad hoc committee, the group was initially authorized for three years and required express authorization to renew it for a second term.
The reauthorization vote comes days before the start of the 2014 Fortnight for Freedom. Sponsored by the U.S. bishops, the two-week initiative is a period of prayer and awareness of religious liberty, both at home and abroad.
In addition to two nationally televised Masses, the fortnight in the last two years has included diocesan-level rosaries, Masses, prayer vigils and holy hours, as well as study groups, movie nights and community service events.
Some dioceses have hosted public gatherings, ecumenical prayer rallies, talks and panel discussions on religious liberty. Others have encouraged private devotion, fasting and contributions to spiritual bouquets during the two-week period.
This year’s fortnight will focus on how religious freedom enables service to the poor and vulnerable.
The June 21-July 4 initiative includes the Catholic feasts of saints like John Fisher, Thomas More, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul and the first martyrs of Rome who faced persecution by political power.
Among the concerns addressed by the bishops’ ad hoc religious liberty committee is the federal contraception mandate, which requires most employers, including many Catholic organizations, to facilitate employee health coverage for sterilization, contraception and drugs that can cause early abortions, despite their religious and moral objections. Violators of the mandate face heavy penalties.
The bishops’ conference has worked to speak out and raise awareness about problems posed by the mandate. A ruling is expected from the U.S. Supreme Court later this month on the mandate as it affects religious individuals running for-profit businesses.
The U.S. bishops have also noted threats to religious organizations and businesses caused by the redefinition of marriage and laws that consider objections to “gay marriage” to be illegal discrimination. Catholic adoption agencies in numerous cities have been shut down because they cannot in good conscience place children with same-sex couples. In addition, businesses have faced lawsuits for declining to serve same-sex “wedding” ceremonies.
State immigration laws have also threatened charitable outreach and pastoral care to undocumented immigrants, while Catholic medical personnel and others who object to abortion have faced pressure to participate in the deadly procedures, the bishops’ conference has said.
International religious freedom violations have also been gaining increasing concern and attention, with threats facing those in Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria, among other countries.
In a new book last year, entitled “The Global War on Christians,” Vatican analyst John Allen, Jr. focused on the tremendous extent of Christian persecution that still exists around the world today. He observed that the first decade of the 21st century saw 100,000 Christians were killed per year – 11 new martyrs every hour.