CHICAGO — “Dear President Obama, can I ask you a question,” the young Catholic schoolgirl asks, staring resolutely into the camera. “Why are you trying to force my church or my school to pay for things that we don’t even believe in?”
That’s the start of the latest ad from CatholicVote.org, seeking to call attention to a range of actions by the Obama administration that impinge on the religious liberty of Catholic Americans. The 30-second spot will debut today on Good Morning America in Pittsburgh. It also will air on cable stations in southwest Florida.
Josh Mercer, director of communications for CatholicVote.org, says the ad was triggered primarily by an interim final rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in August. The rule requires that all private insurance plans cover sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients.
“We want to alert Catholics and people of all faiths, frankly, about the threats to religious liberty by the Obama administration,” Mercer said.
Mercer noted that Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, strongly criticized the contraceptive mandate and the narrowness of its religious employers’ exemption. The exemption is worded so narrowly that Catholic schools and hospitals would be forced to participate in plans that provide contraception and sterilization.
According to some reports, the concerns expressed by the U.S. bishops have prompted President Obama to reconsider some aspects of the contraceptive mandate.
“The reason that we’re doing the ad right now is because President Obama is reconsidering it, and we know the only reason he’s reconsidering it is because he’s looking at his re-election coming up in less than a year,” Mercer said. “And we want to let the voters of western Pennsylvania know — because Pittsburgh’s a very Catholic town — exactly what’s going on with this issue.”
Another example, cited by Mercer and mentioned in the CatholicVote.org ad, is the pair of recent National Labor Relations Board rulings that found that two historically Catholic colleges had become insufficiently Catholic to warrant a religious exemption.
“There’s a lot of Catholics today who are very upset about the direction of our Catholic schools and colleges,” Mercer said, “but to determine whether a college is Catholic or not is a decision that should be left to the local bishop and not to the federal government.”
In late September, the U.S. bishops’ conference announced the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. Archbishop Dolan directly linked the creation of the new office to actions by the federal government, as well as a number of troubling state laws.
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,” Archbishop Dolan said.
“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,” the archbishop continued. “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.”
At the time of the formation of the new Committee on Religious Liberty, Archbishop Dolan had complained that the White House had not responded to his invitation for a discussion about the USCCB’s concerns. In November, the archbishop was finally invited to meet with the president, a signal that the White House might be reassessing its controversial policies.
In an interview with the Register, Bishop Lori noted that, at the White House meeting, “religious liberty matters were discussed.” Further, the committee he chairs will “engage public officials, but its main role is to teach about religious liberty, to the faithful and to others of good faith.”
Threats to religious liberty are long-standing, said the bishop, but have become a special focus for a variety of reasons. “Violations of religious liberty at the state level are on the rise, especially in those states that have redefined civil ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples,” he said. “Certainly the bishops are concerned over the Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations. ... Similarly the federal government’s decision to end long-standing cooperative agreements with [Catholic Relief Services] and [Migration and Refugee Services] because these Catholic service providers will not provide ‘the full range of reproductive services’ is troubling. ... Over time, religious liberty has eroded in both law and culture, at all levels of government, and around the world.”
In previous published interviews, Bishop Lori has sought to unite Catholic national and grassroots activists from across the political spectrum by emphasizing the connection between religious liberty and the ability of all Catholic institutions — from adoption agencies to trafficking victims’ assistance programs — to fulfill their mission without interference by the state.
The Register contacted the White House press office for comment and was referred to HHS. A spokesman for the federal agency declined to reply directly to questions about whether the Obama administration has interfered with the religious freedom of Catholics or whether the president will give consideration to amending the contraceptive mandate.
The HHS spokesman repeated its recent statements, which implicitly challenge the assertion that some of its policies are anti-Catholic. The spokesman noted that grants to Catholic-affiliated organizations during the first three years of Obama’s term amounted to more than $650 million, compared to about $540 million during the last three years of the Bush administration.
Richard Thompson, the president of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting the religious freedom of Christians, agrees that the religious liberty of Catholics has been seriously undermined during the Obama presidency.
“You can go right down the list of almost every major cultural issue that has been promoted by the Obama administration, as it relates to abortion, as it relates to homosexual ‘marriage,’” Thompson said. “It’s attempting to intimidate the Church into abandoning doctrine.”
The Obama administration has been heavily influenced by “a strongly anti-Christian philosophy,” Thompson argued, adding that this philosophy also permeates other political institutions and key sectors of contemporary American society, such as higher education and the entertainment industry.
In this often hostile social context, Thompson said, it’s important that Catholics rally in support of their Church.
“We’re doing that in, of course, the courts,” Thompson said, referring to the work of the Thomas More Law Center. “But, obviously, Catholic voters have to understand what is going on and discern which of their representatives will truly support the constitutional protections that have been given to religion in general.”
Mercer says CatholicVote.org will continue to draw attention to religious-freedom issues between now and next year’s presidential election, giving particular attention to communicating with Catholic voters in Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. All four states are potential swing states, having voted for Obama in 2008 and for the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm elections, and all four have a significant Catholic vote.
“We’ll be doing a lot of ads over the next year focusing on the presidential election,” Mercer said. “The Catholic vote itself is very much up for grabs in 2012. And we’re hoping to convince our fellow Catholics that they need to support a president who will be pro-life, pro-family and will be respectful of religious liberties.”
Register correspondent Tom McFeely writes from Victoria, British Columbia.