Bishops briefed on religious liberty efforts, prepare for 'difficult road'

Bishops at conference CNA US Catholic News 6 13 12 Bishops participate in the June 13-15, 2012 full USCCB assembly in Atlanta, Ga.

Speakers at the U.S. bishops' meeting in Atlanta, Ga. emphasized the importance of continuing efforts to defend religious freedom through various cultural, legal and educational approaches. 

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' religious liberty committee, explained that the U.S. Church is faced with "not just one but a serious of extraordinary challenges" that will require "full and undivided efforts" to address.

The archbishop spoke June 13 as part of a two-hour discussion on domestic and international religious freedom at the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, also spoke during the discussion, outlining numerous recent threats to religious liberty in the U.S.

Among the most prominent of these threats is a federal insurance mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if it violates their consciences.

Garvey also noted that the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services was denied a grant to work with human trafficking victims last fall because it would not refer for abortion and contraception, despite being among the top-ranked groups in the field for the past five years.

Furthermore, he observed, in January, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected the narrow definition of religion and religious minster held by the Obama administration in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC. Many saw the administration's narrow view of religion as troubling.

In addition, Garvey said, Catholic Charities has been forced to leave the adoption business in several areas, due to their objections to placing children with same-sex couples.

He also voiced concern over the erosion of conscience protections for doctors and other health care professionals who object to performing, referring or suggesting abortion and similar procedures.

Garvey suggested that there is a cultural problem underlying these recent threats to religious liberty in America.

"There has been a decline in respect for religious liberty," he observed, explaining that protections for religion are both narrower and weaker than they once were.

He noted that America was originally founded as a haven for those whose religious beliefs differed from the mainstream. Now, he lamented, it is treated "casually."

He suggested that this transformation may be connected to the phenomenon - shown in recent studies on declining attendance of worship services - that Americans today are less religious than those in the past.

"Our society won't care about religious freedom if it doesn't care about God," he said.

Garvey counseled that in response efforts must be made to restore a proper appreciation for religion, in order to bring about a natural respect for religious freedom as well.

Archbishop Lori highlighted three steps that have been taken by the bishops to defend religious liberty in recent months.

He pointed to a March 14 statement from the conference's administrative committee, which was backed by the entire conference in a unanimous voice vote on June 13.

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The statement, entitled "United for Religious Freedom," reflects "the unity of the bishops" in response to the contraception mandate, he said.

A later document from the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, entitled "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," discusses not only the mandate, but other threats from both ends of the political spectrum, as well as religious persecution abroad, the archbishop added.

He explained that this document "offers an overview" of the Church's teaching on religious freedom "in light of the American experience."

It also "affirms that it is not merely the right of Catholics that are at risk and warrant our concern, but of others as well," he said, emphasizing that "the right of religious freedom belongs to all."

In addition, Archbishop Lori said, the bishops have called for a "Fortnight for Freedom" to be held during the two-week period leading up to Independence Day. Catholics are encouraged to engage in activities aimed at prayer, education and advocacy of public officials during this time.

The fortnight includes national elements, he said, such as the nationwide ringing of church bells at specific times and Masses in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. However, most of the events will be held locally, at the diocesan level, and will invite the participation of the faithful.

The archbishop clarified that the fortnight is "not about parties, candidates or elections," as some have suggested, nor is "intended as an occasion for civil disobedience."

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Rather, the event is strictly about the issue of religious freedom, and this is reflected in the materials that the bishops are producing for it, he said.

Archbishop Lori encouraged his fellow bishops to prepare for "a difficult road ahead."

Defending religious freedom "won't be easy" and may require some suffering, he said. 

But the trials should not lead to discouragement, he insisted, because equipped with truth and love of Christ, "we will not fail."