WASHINGTON — On Nov. 4, The Denver Post published a campaign advertisement, paid for by local Catholics, which included a letter by Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver warning voters that religious freedom was under attack.

“Our Founding Fathers understood that without these freedoms, especially religious liberty, our democratic experiment would fail,” read the archbishop’s Nov. 1 letter, which stated that the federal contraception mandate “undermines the promise of the First Amendment.”

The appearance of Archbishop Aquila’s letter in the campaign advertisement underscored the increasing intensity and unity of the U.S. bishops’ call for action this election year. Amid the presidential campaigns, Americans have witnessed both the usual partisan pitches to voters concerned about jobs and shoring up social entitlements and an unprecedented parallel crusade by Catholic leaders seeking to overturn the federal contraception mandate.

The U.S. bishops’ battle against the mandate, and other threats to religious liberty, has been accompanied by history lessons that highlight the importance of First Amendment protections for the free exercise of religion and stories of Christian martyrs who have witnessed to the rights of conscience from the early Church to the present. They've approved legal challenges to the mandate and advocated for stronger conscience protections on Capital Hill.

But the bishops have also framed the contraception mandate as a symptom of an aggressive secularism, which seeks to marginalize the role of religious institutions and people in the public square, and they have initiated ecumenical and inter-faith  efforts to resist challenges to religious freedom, whatever the outcome of the 2012 election.


Clearly Opposing the Mandate

The campaign for religious freedom began in earnest on Jan. 20, when Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, formally approved the federal contraception mandate, authorized under the Affordable Care Act, known commonly as Obamacare.

The mandate requires virtually all private employers, including Catholic universities, social agencies and hospitals, to provide co-pay-free contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plans. The mandate’s narrow religious exemption only shields houses of worship and institutions that employ and serve co-religionists.

That same day the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement attacking the mandate and rallying resistance.

“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights,” stated then-Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the bishops’ conference, on Jan. 20.

“The Catholic bishops are committed to working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change this unjust regulation. We will continue to study all the implications of this troubling decision.”

A host of Catholic leaders, including Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, also spoke out against the mandate’s narrow religious exemption, and the ensuing firestorm elicited promises of an “accommodation” by the Obama White House.

The next test of episcopal unity arrived on Feb. 10, when the accommodation was unveiled. The USCCB issued a statement rejecting the proposed changes, while Sister Carol initially approved them, provoking a public dispute that seemed to threaten the clarity of the bishops’ opposition to the mandate. Sister Carol later backed away from supporting the accommodation.

Nevertheless, the bishops’ conference never wavered from that early assessment of the accommodation, despite a barrage of headlines and commentary suggesting that their stance was both unreasonable and deeply partisan.  


About First Freedom, Not Contraception

On Feb. 28, then-Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the first chairman of the newly formed USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, testified before the House Judiciary Committee to explain the bishops’ concerns about the mandate. But Democrats on the committee were already prepared to reframe opposition to the mandate as an attempt to deny access to contraception.

On March 14, the USCCB administrative committee signed a letter that underscored the bishops’ growing unity of purpose about the need to overturn the mandate, educate Catholics about the importance of defending religious liberty and counter partisan spin.

 “This is not about the bishops somehow ‘banning contraception’ when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church — consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions — to act against Church teachings,” read the statement.

The USCCB statement explained the danger posed by the mandate’s narrow religious exemption.

“Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry. HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction — alien both to our Catholic Tradition and to federal law — between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities and others in need, of any faith community or none.

“We are commanded both to love and to serve the Lord; laws that protect our freedom to comply with one of these commands but not the other are nothing to celebrate. Indeed, they must be rejected, for they create a ‘second class’ of citizenship within our religious community.”


Rallying Catholics to Cherish Liberty

On April 12, the U.S. bishops issued a “call to action,” with the release of “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty,” developed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

Religious liberty is “the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.

“If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state? If our obligations and duties to God are impeded or, even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free and a beacon of hope for the world,” read the statement, which stressed that religious liberty extended beyond the right to worship.

Designed to educate the faithful about religious liberty in parishes and schools, the document calls on the entire Church, from the bishops to the laity, to take up the fight for religious freedom.

“As bishops, we seek to bring the light of the Gospel to our public life, but the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics. We exhort them to be both engaged and articulate in insisting that as Catholics and as Americans we do not have to choose between the two.”

The document announced plans for a Fortnight for Freedom, from June 21 to July 4, which would focus on the spiritual foundations of their campaign against the mandate. And Archbishop Lori of Baltimore marked the start of the fortnight on June 21, the vigil of the feasts of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More.

During the opening Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, Archbishop Lori reviewed the Church’s case against the mandate, but also acknowledged that even if the mandate was overcome the danger would not fade away.

“Even if current threats like the HHS mandate were to be overcome, we would still have to face powerful forces which seek to prevent religious faith from exerting an appropriate and necessary influence within our culture. Some would even say that the Catholic Church is a primary obstacle that stands in the way of creating a completely secular culture in the United States,” stated Archbishop Lori.

He suggested that the United States needed men and women of conscience, like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, to uphold fundamental freedoms that secured the American experiment in ordered liberty.

“If freedom is a system based on courage and if the motive of democracy is love, then let us strive in God’s grace, throughout this fortnight and beyond, to be men and women of courageous love for the glory of God, for the good of the Church and for love of country,” he said.

On July 4, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, at the closing Mass for the fortnight at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, further exhorted the faithful to embrace religious liberty as a testament to their love of God.

“Thinking about the relationship of Caesar and God, religious faith and secular authority, is important. It helps us sort through our different duties as Christians and citizens. But, on a deeper level, Caesar is a creature of this world, and Christ’s message is uncompromising: We should give Caesar nothing of ourselves,” said Archbishop Chaput.

“Obviously, we’re in the world. That means we have obligations of charity and justice to the people with whom we share it. Patriotism is a virtue. ...

"But God made us for more than the world. Our real home isn’t here.”

In late summer, Cardinal Dolan made headlines across the country when he delivered the benediction at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. On Sept. 6, his closing prayer  at the Democratic National Convention asked God to secure religious freedom.

“Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty: the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our founding. May our liberty be in harmony with truth; freedom ordered in goodness and justice.”

The U.S. bishops’ fight against the mandate wasn’t supposed to get much traction during an election year dominated by economic concerns. But partisan groups reframed opposition to the mandate as a “war on women.” Then GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan raised the issue during his Oct. 11 debate with Vice President Joe Biden, and the Democrat repeated the White House’s past claims that the issue had been resolved with the accommodation.

The following day, the USCCB issued a statement of clarification that refuted the comments made by Biden.

“The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain ‘religious employers.’ That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to ‘Catholic social services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital’ or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.”


Secularism Marginalizing Religion

On Oct. 23, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago had something to say about the surprising staying power of the intense public debate stirred by the mandate.

The “secularizing” of American society is a “much larger issue” than a campaign sound bite, he suggested. This year, the public has confronted “anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades.” His remarks pointed to one reason for the bishops’ strong sense of unity on defending First Amendment rights, but his observation also established a connection between the mandate battle and the broader secular current sweeping away Christian patterns of life across the West.

On All Saints' Day, Nov. 1, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference issued “A Statement of the Pennsylvania Catholic Bishops on the 2012 Elections,” which highlighted issues of concern to the Church and directed the faithful to hold “political candidates accountable” when they endorsed positions that involved grave evil, such as forcing “Catholic health care and social services to end their ministries.”

The statement would be just one of hundreds of such warnings issued by bishops and pastors across the country in the final weeks and days before the election, all raising the alarm about “a pattern of legislative and judicial actions [that] has emerged in our country that undermines religious liberty and jeopardizes the contributions of religious bodies in the public realm.”

The outcome of the election will have an immediate impact, determining whether the contraception mandate stands or falls. But the Pennsylvania bishops’ statement drew on a larger lesson from the long campaign against the mandate: “The Catholic faith is always personal but never private,” they concluded, affirming their resistance to any effort to contain religious practices to places of worship.

 “In this mutuality of politics and religious conviction — as informed citizens and as steadfast believers — we strive to fulfill the human vocation in our own day, just as all the saints have done in past ages.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.