By Michelle Bauman
The U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty urged the U.S. Congress to protect the right to religious freedom in America because of several actions taken by the Obama administration.
“Religious liberty is not merely one right among others, but enjoys a certain primacy,” Bishop William E. Lori said in his Oct. 26 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution.
“Not coincidentally, religious liberty is first on the list in the Bill of Rights, the charter of our Nation’s most cherished and fundamental freedoms,” he said.
Bishop Lori was announced as the first chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty on Sept. 29, 2011.
Bishop Lori said that his brother bishops are greatly concerned by recent attacks on religious freedom. In his testimony, he outlined several recent “threats to religious liberty” in the United States.
Bishop Lori criticized regulations issued in August by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require coverage of sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, in nearly all private health insurance plans. He explained that the religious exemption included in the regulations is too narrow to apply to most Catholic organizations.
The bishop also called attention to new requirements for contractors who work with human trafficking victims. Due to these regulations, he said, the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, which previously worked with the government to aid victims of trafficking “will be barred from participation in the program because they cannot in conscience provide the ‘full range’ of reproductive services – namely, abortion and contraception.”
Likewise, Bishop Lori noted, the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development is increasingly requiring contractors to provide contraception in relief and development programs across the world. Doing so, he explained, will exclude organizations such as Catholic Relief Services from “helping to prevent and treat AIDS in Africa and other developing nations.”
The bishop also criticized the federal Department of Justice for not only failing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act but also “filing briefs actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice.”
He said the Department of Justice has further undermined religious liberty in the “ministerial exception” case, Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC, which is currently before the Supreme Court. He said that the department “needlessly attacked the very existence of the exception, in opposition to a vast coalition of religious groups urging its preservation through their amicus curiae briefs.”
Bishop Lori also expressed disappointment in a failure to adequately protect religious liberty at the state level. He gave the example of county clerks in New York who are facing legal action for refusing to take part in granting same-sex unions, and a case involving Catholic Charities in Illinois being prevented from providing foster care because they recognize “the unique value of man-woman marriage for the well-being of children.”
The bishop acknowledged that the underlying problem is rooted in American culture, which must ultimately be addressed. In the meantime, he said, Congress must make an effort to “treat the symptoms immediately, lest the disease spread so quickly that the patient is overcome before the ultimate cure can be formulated and delivered.”
Bishop Lori applauded three bills currently in Congress to fight the insurance contraception mandate and other health care concerns.
He said that the Protect Life Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act all “go a long way toward guaranteeing religious liberty and freedom of conscience for religious employers, health insurers, and health care providers.”
“United with my brother bishops, and in the name of religious liberty, I urge these three bills be swiftly passed by Congress so they may be signed into law.”
In response to the regulations placed on religious human service providers, Bishop Lori urged “a congressional hearing or other form of investigation to ensure compliance with the applicable conscience laws, as well as to identify how these new requirements came to be imposed.”
Regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, he called on Congress to “resist legislative efforts to repeal the law.” He added that the Department of Justice’s “decisions to abandon both DOMA and the ‘ministerial exception’ seem to warrant congressional inquiry.”
The bishop urged Congress to immediately take these measures to protect the religious freedom that belongs to individuals as well as “churches and other religious institutions.”
Religious liberty, he said, is endowed by our Creator and is therefore “prior to the state itself.”
“Thus government has a perennial obligation to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment,” he said.