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.