Religious freedom erosion threatens all rights, panel says

Diane Black R Tenn speaks at the press conference on Religious Freedom March 5 2013 Credit Addie Mena CNA 2 CNA 3 5 13 Diane Black (R-Tenn.) speaks at the press conference on Religious Freedom March 5, 2013. | Addie Mena/CNA.

Federal lawmakers, archdiocesan representatives and leaders of companies and non-profit organizations came together at a Philadelphia forum to publicly support religious liberty from governmental threats.

"What brought us all here today is so much bigger than a single piece of legislation or a political party; it is about protecting Americans' First Amendment right to religious freedom," said Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.).

"Every American – religious or otherwise – has something to lose if this administration prevails in their efforts to infringe upon a basic Constitutional right."

The June 21 forum was held during the 2013 Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period in which the U.S. bishops have asked Americans of all faiths to engage in prayer, education and action to defend religious freedom both at home and abroad.

Joining Rep. Black at the event were Congressmen Joe Pitts (R- Pa.) and Chris Smith (R- N.J.). Francis Maier, senior advisor to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, also spoke at the forum, along with Penny Nance of the Concerned Women of America and Michael Geer of the Pennsylvania Family Institute.

They were joined by Anthony Hahn, CEO of Conestoga Wood Specialties of East Earl, Pa., which is currently fighting in court to protect its First Amendment religious freedoms from the demands of the controversial federal contraception mandate.

The mandate – issued by the Department of Health and Human Services – requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering a full range of abortion and contraception, even if doing so violates their religious convictions.

In their remarks, the speakers at the forum said that the mandate – which is the subject of lawsuits from more than 200 plaintiffs nationwide – poses a threat to religious liberty throughout the United States and to the rights of all Americans, regardless of whether they are people of faith.

"For some Americans, businesses like Hobby Lobby, Hercules Industries and Conestoga Wood Specialties, and the numerous Catholic charities, living out their faith will soon mean facing the very real possibility of shuttering their doors," Black warned.

"But for all Americans the HHS mandate means a dangerous precedent that undermines our most basic founding principles that have made our nation a place where individuals can freely choose to practice or reject any religion without fear of persecution from their own government," she said.

Speakers at the forum discussed the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, introduced in Congress to provide an exemption for those who cannot in good conscience abide by the HHS mandate.

Black said that the proposed bill would "protect the American people from this unprecedented violation of the First Amendment."

Rep. Smith noted that the mandate also requires funding of drugs that are known to cause early abortions if a human embryo has already been created.

By forcing religious employers to violate their deeply held religious beliefs, he argued, the administration "demonstrates a reckless disregard for conscience rights."

Congressman Pitts warned that the mandate violates constitutional protections that were purposely put in place by the creators of the American government.

"The Founding Fathers established a bill of rights because they knew that the government would always be tempted to abuse its power," he said.

"The bureaucrats at HHS may feel that they know what is best for all Americans, but being an American means the freedom to decide on your own," Pitts continued. "To let your convictions guide your life."

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Noting that he is neither Catholic nor Mennonite and does not personally share the beliefs of those faiths "about what is morally objectionable," he stressed that he nonetheless does "believe in their right to live and worship according to their beliefs of their faiths."

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