Faith groups unite to stress need for HHS mandate exemptions

Press conference on religious freedom at National press club in Washington DC on July 2 2013 US Catholic News CNA credit Adelaide Darling Mena CNA 7 2 2013 Religious freedom press conference, July 2. From L to R: Prof. Anne Hendershott, Archb. William E. Lori, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh of the USCCB, Dr. Russell Moore, and Dr. Yui Mantilla.

More than 100 religious leaders from various faith backgrounds are asking the U.S. government to respect the beliefs of those who oppose the demands of the controversial HHS mandate.

"As the Catholic bishops have said from the very beginning, the underlying issue with the HHS Mandate is not about any specific teaching," stated Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori, who chairs the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

"In fact, other signatories on the letter do not share our view on contraception and probably disagree with us in many other ways, but they understand the core religious freedom issue at stake here," he explained.

Archbishop Lori spoke as part of a July 2 panel of religious leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The panel was held to mark the release of an open letter, "Standing Together for Religious Freedom," signed by Archbishop Lori and more than 100 other religious leaders and scholars from a variety of faith traditions.
The letter emphasized the risks to religious freedom posed by the Obama administration's HHS mandate, which requires nearly all employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early-stage abortions.

Many faith-based organizations and religious individuals running for-profit businesses have sued the government over the mandate, which they say violates their First Amendment right to religious freedom. Failure to comply with the regulation results in large fines that could be devastating for the businesses.

Yuri Mantilla, chairman of the Justice Initiative of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, explained that the mandate threatens religious freedom by forcing "religious believers to make a choice between obeying the law and violating deeply held religious beliefs; or obeying fundamental religious and moral norms and disobeying the governmental mandate."

The signers of the letter asked the administration to "at a minimum, expand conscience protections under the mandate to cover any organization or individual that has religious or moral objections to covering, providing or enabling access to the mandated drugs and services."

They also call on Congress to implement legislation protecting against religious freedom violations.

Sociology professor Anne Hendershott of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said that despite the government's assertions that the mandate does not injure religious non-profit organizations – such as the Catholic university where she works – the mandate in actuality has caused harm and threatens to cause more harm.

Catholic schools and universities "have already been injured by this unjust mandate because our constitutional right to religious freedom has been compromised," she said.

She warned that should these violations continue to escalate, "the state can target us as they have done to Catholic adoption agencies that won't place children with gay and lesbian couples."

Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethical and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, stressed that while the infringements on religious liberty presented by the HHS mandate are subtle, they are significant.

"Our First Freedom of religious liberty is rarely challenged with sudden shock and awe tactics," he said. "Instead, from the very beginning, such incursions on religious liberty happen in this country from the pen of a bureaucrat rather than the barrel of a tank."

"Do we really want the sort of civil society in which the consciences of the people are so easily swept aside by government action?" asked Moore.

He added that if the government can impose its will on one group of people "what will stop the government from its imposing its will on your consciences next?"

"We support freedom of conscience not only for ourselves but for all," he emphasized.

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"We do not ask the government to bless our doctrinal convictions, or to impose them on others. We simply ask the government not to set itself up as lord of our consciences."

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