WASHINGTON — In an escalation of the U.S. bishops’ campaign against “grave threats to religious liberty,” Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., endorsed three bills designed to strengthen First Amendment rights.
The bishop, who heads the newly established Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified before Congress Oct. 26.
“I am here today to call to your attention grave threats to religious liberty that have emerged even since June — grim validations of the bishops’ recognition of the need for urgent and concerted action in this area,” said the bishop. “I focus on these because most of them arise under federal law and so may well be the subject of corrective action by Congress.”
He appeared before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution to endorse three bills that would strengthen the religious freedom and conscience rights of Catholic institutions and individuals: the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), recently approved by the House in a bipartisan vote; the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179).
“All three go a long way toward guaranteeing religious liberty and freedom of conscience for religious employers, health insurers and health-care providers,” said Bishop Lori in his testimony.
His appearance in Congress was the latest step in an increasingly visible campaign by the bishops to fight federal regulations they view as hostile to the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and believers — from hospitals and schools to social agencies that serve the needy, here and abroad.
Most recently, the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Services was denied federal funding for its highly regarded services that aid trafficking victims, after the Department of Health and Human Services stressed a preference for grantees that provide family-planning services.
Bishop Lori asserted that the “illegal conditions that HHS and USAID are placing on religious providers of human services may call for 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.”
CatholicCulture.org reported Nov. 9 that the USCCB has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to discover why HHS declined to renew a grant to aid victims of human trafficking.
In the wake of a controversial HHS rule mandating that virtually all private employer health plans provide contraception and sterilization services, the USCCB has gone on the offensive. Its president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, has led the charge against the Obama administration, issuing a strongly worded letter that identified threats to religious freedom posed by new federal rules.
In his Sept. 29 letter to the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Dolan also targeted the Justice Department’s decision to file briefs challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). He said the Justice Department was characterizing the law’s supporters as bigots.
“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,” he said.
Following the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal policy that once banned open homosexuals from serving in the military, advocates have intensified their attacks on DOMA. During his testimony, Bishop Lori called on the House to block a new bill designed to repeal DOMA, titled the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 1116).
The U.S. bishops “applaud the decision of the House to take up the defense of DOMA,” said Bishop Lori, who asked the members to sustain that effort “for as long as necessary to obtain definitive confirmation of [DOMA’s] constitutionality.”
Asked to comment on the status of the bills that Bishop Lori endorsed during his testimony, Richard Doerflinger, the USCCB’s chief lobbyist on life issues, outlined the conference’s legislative strategy.
“We think the most urgent priority is to get the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act passed this year. The language of that bill has been put into the House subcommittee draft of the Labor-HHS Appropriates Bill for fiscal year 2012.”
“Getting into the appropriations bill may be the only way to get the Senate to deal with these bills, just as Speaker Boehner, during negotiations with the White House over the last omnibus bill, was able to restore a ban on federally funded abortion in the District of Columbia,” said Doerflinger. He hopes that the next round of negotiations will provide a chance to improve conscience protections on abortion.
A second priority is the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which would strengthen conscience exemptions for new coverage mandates created under the health law. “We are making progress on this bill, and (recently) we had our first Democratic sponsor in the Senate — Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.”
He confirmed that the HHS had yet to respond to the bishops’ request that religious exemptions be expanded in the federal rule mandating contraception coverage for private employee health plans.
“HHS has said they understood the exemption was narrow, and they may expand it. But they won’t go as far as we want,” he predicted.
During the hearing, however, the USCCB’s advocacy of robust religious exemptions for Catholic institutions provoked skepticism from another invited speaker, Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He criticized the federal government’s faith-based initiatives program for underwriting religious discrimination and noted a number of examples of individuals denied or fired from federally funded jobs because of their religion or sexual orientation.
He challenged the need for more generous religious exemptions, citing a New York Times study of laws passed between 1989 and 2006 that identified that more than “200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into congressional legislation.”
Said Lynn, “Religious organizations, therefore, surely cannot argue that the government is not respecting their need for accommodations.”
That assertion was challenged by Colby May, director and senior counsel for the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice, which defends religious freedom around the world. May focused on the suppression of religious freedom in U.S. public and private schools and universities.
Increasingly, critics of the government’s entanglement with church-based social service include orthodox Catholics who fear that state regulations dilute the religious identity of agencies like Catholic Charities. Some bishops have begun to explore alternative models for assisting the needy, an approach likely to gain traction in the years ahead.
In his testimony before Congress, Bishop Lori acknowledged that the recent intrusive federal regulations reflected a long-term legal and political effort to constrain religious freedom.
“The ultimate root causes of these threats are profound and lie beyond the scope of this hearing or even this august body to fix — they are fundamentally philosophical and cultural problems,” he said, and they must be addressed in a different forum.
The repudiation of the Christian roots of Western culture has deepened hostility toward the distinctive nature of church institutions, whatever worthy services they provide.
But Pope Benedict XVI has stressed that religious places of worship and programs play an equally essential role as mediating institutions that limit the power of the state.
Bishop Lori emphasized this point in his congressional testimony, which noted that “liberty is also prior to the state itself. It is not merely a privilege that the government grants us and so may take away at will.”
Said Bishop Lori, “We look to the state not to impose religion, but to guarantee religious freedom and to promote harmony among followers of different religions.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.