The U.S. bishops have thanked organizations and entities for their courage in fighting a federal contraception mandate that forces employers to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs.

"Catholics in America have long been advocates for religious liberty, and we continue to affirm this basic right today," said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

"We have consistently supported the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions, especially when individuals seek to protect the dignity of human life," he added.

Archbishop Lori serves as the chair of the U.S. Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and issued the statement in his capacity as spokesman for the bishops on the subject.

In January 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate requiring all health care providers to provide and pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs – even if the employer or insurance provider has deeply-held beliefs preventing the provision of these products and procedures.

Over the course of 2012 and 2013, the Obama administration has offered a series of proposed modifications that offer exemption for "religious employers" and other proposals that clarify who qualifies as a "religious employer."

Archbishop Lori acknowledged these motions towards compromise and said that "this small, incremental step is welcomed." He added, however, that "most of the serious problems with the definition and mandate remain, and so we will continue our vigorous efforts to correct those remaining flaws."

He explained the extent of the Catholic expression of faith and the full extent of religious freedom, saying that "in our Catholic tradition, the right to religious freedom proceeds from the inherent dignity of each and every human person."

"Accordingly, our concern for religious freedom extends well beyond our own ministries of service," the archbishop added.

The public has also had an opportunity to submit comments on the mandate and proposed exemptions. The topic has garnered more than 150,000 official comments – more than any other U.S. regulatory proposal. The comment period closes April 8 at midnight.

Currently there are scores of lawsuits against the mandate and proposed modifications, including those from Catholic dioceses around the country, religious non-profit organizations such as universities, hospitals and charities, and for-profit companies that reflect their owners' religious belief through their operation.

"We continue to pray for the success of all of these lawsuits," said the archbishop, thanking all those "who have challenged the HHS mandate in federal courts around our country over the last year."

"Their goal is nothing less than securing the freedom of the Church to continue to obey the Lord's command – and, in turn, to serve the common good – by providing charitable ministries in health care, education, and service to the poor, all without compromising Catholic beliefs," said Archbishop Lori of the Catholic groups filing suit.

The archbishop also expressed "solidarity and appreciation as well for those in the business sector who have courageously challenged the HHS mandate in court."

He added that the U.S. Bishops "note that their actions have been a source of encouragement, particularly because of their high rate of success in obtaining early injunctions to block the mandate."

Archbishop Lori concluded by saying he "would like to urge all people of good will to pray that our leaders, and all people of this great country, will promote and protect religious liberty and its fundamental place in society."