The U.S. bishops appear to be weary of a consistent reactive posture in recent years to swift changes in the nation's political and cultural landscape. Responding to what a U.S.C.C.B. press release described the "persisitent erosion of religious liberty," the bishops announced the formation of a new "Ad Hoc Committee For Religious Liberty," launching a new strike force in the U.S. culture wars.

The committee promises to "teach and shape policy in the face of accelerating threats." At the top of the list of those threats will be the proposed intermin guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services, which may require that new health insurance plans be required to include coverage for contraception and sterilization programs and "emergeny" contraception Plan B and ella, all objectionable to Catholic teaching. Those guidelines are under review; a period of public comment ends today.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the United Sates Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), established the ad hoc committee after consulting with the USCCB Administrative Committee during the Committee’s September 13-14 meeting in Washington. In a letter to bishops to announce the subcommittee, Archbishop Dolan said religious freedom “in its many and varied applications for Christians and people of faith, is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America.

“This is most particularly so in an increasing number of federal government programs or policies that would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith or otherwise harm the foundational principle of religious liberty,” he said. “As shepherds of over 70 million U.S. citizens we share a common and compelling responsibility to proclaim the truth of religious freedom for all, and so to protect our people from this assault which now appears to grow at an ever accelerating pace in ways most of us could never have imagined.”

Dolan named Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to chair the new committee. Lori said he welcomed “the opportunity to work with fellow bishops and men and women of expertise in constitutional law so as to defend and promote the God-given gift of religious liberty recognized and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States.

“This ad hoc committee aims to address the increasing threats to religious liberty in our society so that the Church’s mission may advance unimpeded and the rights of believers of any religious persuasion or none may be respected.”

According to a USCCB release: "Support for the subcommittee work will include adding two full-time staff at the USCCB, a lawyer expert in the area of religious freedom law, and a lobbyist who will handle both religious liberty and marriage issues."

Archbishop Dolan said the committee will work closely with national organizations, charities, ecumenical and interreligious partners and scholars “to form a united and forceful front in defense of religious freedom in our nation,” and its work will begin immediately.

He added that “the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee is one element of what I expect to be a new moment in the history of our Conference. Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider. If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave.”

Archbishop Dolan said that, although he and his predecessor as USCCB President, Cardinal Francis George, had sent private letters to President Obama on religious liberty in the context of redefining marriage, none of those letters received a response.

“I have offered to meet with the President to discuss these concerns and to impress upon him the dire nature of these actions by government,” Archbishop Dolan said.

Archbishop Dolan listed six religious liberty concerns arising just since June:

• Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations that would mandate the coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in all private health insurance plans, which could coerce church employers to sponsor and pay for services they oppose. The new rules do not protect insurers or individuals with religious or moral objections to the mandate.

• An HHS requirement that USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services provide the “full range of reproductive services”—meaning abortion and contraception—to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts. The position mirrors the position urged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the ongoing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of MRS’s contracts as a violation of religious liberty.

• Catholic Relief Services’ concern that US Agency for International Development, under the Department of State, is increasingly requiring condom distribution in HIV prevention programs, as well as requiring contraception within international relief and development programs.

• The Justice Department’s attack on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), presenting DOMA’s support for traditional marriage as bigotry. In July, the Department started filing briefs actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice. “If the label of “bigot” sticks to us—especially in court—because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result,” Archbishop Dolan said.

• The Justice Department’s recent attack on the critically important “ministerial exception,” a constitutional doctrine accepted by every court of appeals in the country that leaves to churches (not government) the power to make employment decisions concerning persons working in a ministerial capacity. In a case to be heard this term in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department attacked the very existence of the exception. 

• New York State’s new law redefining marriage, with only a very narrow religious exemption. Already, county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions, and gay rights advocates are publicly emphasizing how little religious freedom protection people and groups will enjoy under the new law.

Comments

Tom Maher | 10/1/2011 - 7:49am
Dave Smith (#6)

You observations that the U.S. Consititution or any legal rights of an individual are meaningful and effective ony if they continue to be can be enforced by society.   In American and world history  fundemental rights have been set aside by governments by interpretation or have been outright ignored or even revoked due to politcal forces that can radically transform society in a matter of a few months or years.  For example the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments were not fully enforced for almost a century after enacted in the 1860s. 

People fail to recongnize that it is not certain or inevitable that laws and soceity will  evolve and impove.  History shows that society can radically devolve for long periods of time.   Progress is not inevitable.  Political and physical systems tend toward enthropy. Governing systems like physical systems do lose energy and organization over time that can result in total collapse if not periodically reenergized and reorganized by fresh political forces. 

Catholics need to be minimumly aware and politcally active to maintaining our Cosnsitutional system over time.  But in our politcally changing times where many fundemental  politcal and moral consensus are breaking down and we are disunited and manifestly have radically divided government, Catholics need to be very alert and politiclly active to effectively defend their religious liberties which can no longer be taken for granted and expected. 
Craig McKee | 10/1/2011 - 6:46am
''persistent erosion of religious liberty...'' HA! Lori and his newfound legalistic cronies should walk a mile in mainland Chinese Catholic shoes for just one day.
Tom Maher | 10/1/2011 - 12:50am
Things must be really bad when the church in America needs to start monitoring for attacks on religious liberty.  Typically the church is as flat-footed on political developments. 

But now the strong and unmistakable pattern  is emerging everywhere that even the dull can not miss that Consitutional portections such as religious liberty are being superceded by extra-constitutional new political rights and doctines.  The national consensus on the meaning and supremacy of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land is being set aside for new "liberal"  rights and standards that were unknown only a few decades ago.

But religious liberty is not a repalceable right and must once again be actively defended. 

Good for the church in America to finally wake up to current threatening politcal conditions.   

Jack Barry | 9/30/2011 - 10:07pm
That an USCCB Ad Hoc Committee For Religious Liberty can focus on a handful of sex-related issues speaks to our good fortune in the US.  Many countries are far less blessed when it comes to religious freedom. 
 
Considering the bishops' record of 40 years teaching only Catholics about contraception, it's understandable that they are seeking help through the government to impose their views.  It is unclear, however, why their prospects for persuading others should be any better than they have been with their fellow Roman Catholics.   
 
Chairman Bishop William Lori welcomed “the opportunity to work with fellow bishops and men and women of expertise in constitutional law.''   Given the common substance of the ''religious liberty'' concerns recognized since June, one might hope he extends his interactions to men and women of expertise in sex and marriage, who seem to be unrecognized.  Their absence in prior work may explain why the President of the USCCB can say that these problems appear [to him] to be growing ''in ways most of us could never have imagined.''   Suitable advisors to the USCCB might expand their imaginations and reduce the incidence of crises such as the one he has noticed since June.  
 
T BLACKBURN | 9/30/2011 - 4:17pm
Can I make my point on this subject without saying something nasty? Probably not. My second thought on the matter (the first was, ''It's about time.'') is that condoms are to Democrats what tax cuts for the wealthy are to Republicans ... See? That is pretty much the state of politics today. It's unavoidable. It's my point:

Since I mentioned Democrats and condoms, it must be obvious that I also oppose ''Obamacare,'' favor freeing the banks from overzealous regulators, want intelligent design taught in school and insist on toting my Glock. On the other hand since I mentioned tax cuts and Republicans I obviously want to bring all the troops home, let unions run the great corporations, nationalize Goldman Sachs and pass Stimulus III if we ever pass II.

We live in a time when too much is inferred from anything you say about politics or government. I really worry that the first time the bishops' new committee opens its mouth we all will know where the Catholic Church stands on my Glock and Goldman Sachs. And we all will know it in its meanest interpretation. In such times, when anything said about one thing explains everything,  I think the bishops ought to be seeking the high ground, not mixing it up.

But I may be wrong. And in staying that I may be wrong, I hope I have not revealed who I favor in the Republican primary, but I probably have.
Joseph Keffer | 9/30/2011 - 4:03pm
It's all about sex, isn't it.  Each of the six points deals with a sexual issue.  Is that what Jesus focused on?  Are the people of God thirsting for more?