April 13, 2012 — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Thursday called on Catholics to join a "great national campaign" to protect religious liberty, which they charged is "under attack, both at home and abroad," the New York Times reports (Goodstein, New York Times, 4/12).
The conference's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty detailed the call to action in a document titled "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." It urges dioceses across the U.S. to hold a "religious liberty fortnight" in the two weeks preceding July 4 to draw attention to the cause. "We need ... to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time," the document states (Pecquet, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 4/12).
The document calls for civil disobedience by Catholics to protest. It states, "If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solitary with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them" (Gibson, USA Today, 4/12).
The new federal contraceptive coverage rules remain among the bishops' top concerns (New York Times, 4/12). The rules implement a provision in the federal health care reform law (PL-111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. The contraceptive coverage requirement includes a religious exemption that primarily applies to houses of worship and does not include religiously affiliated employers with more general missions, such as Catholic hospitals and colleges (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/9).
The new document also attempts to expand the religious liberty issue beyond the contraceptive coverage debate. The bishops cite seven examples of what they call violations of religious freedom, including state laws they say make it illegal to minister to undocumented immigrants and deny funding to Catholic groups that refuse to place foster children with same-sex couples (New York Times, 4/12).
The document also references the Obama administration's decision to deny USCCB a contract for helping survivors of human trafficking because the group does not refer women for contraceptive or abortion services.
The American Civil Liberties Union in a statement said, "While the ACLU firmly supports the free practice of religion and belief, ... we do not believe that any religious institution has the right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate or deny services to the public, and certainly should not expect to receive government funds to do so" ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 4/12).
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said churches that rely on taxpayer dollars should abide by government rules. "When taxpayers are forced to support sectarian agencies that refuse to meet the needs of women, gay people and other communities, that's a real violation of religious liberty," Lynn said, adding, "If the bishops want to run sectarian social services, they ought to collect the money from their parishioners, not the taxpayers" (USA Today, 4/12).