Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and he spoke recently with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about emerging threats to the "first freedom" at the state and national level. He also outlined plans for the 2014 "Fortnight for Freedom," scheduled for June 21-July 4.

In a wide-ranging interview, Archbishop Lori also discussed the likely outcome of Hobby Lobby’s legal challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate and unveiled a new initiative, the Catholic Benefits Association, a health-insurance company for Catholic employers looking for affordable competitive plans that are morally compliant with Church teaching.


For the past two and a half years, you have led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, established to "address growing concerns over the erosion of freedom of religion in America," with the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate as a chief issue. What emerging trends are you studying now?

A major issue is challenges to religious freedom at the state level. During recent legislative seasons, attempts to secure legislation modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) have run into difficulties. We saw that in Kansas, Arizona and other states. Even attempts to make modest improvements to laws already on the books have been vigorously opposed by people who want to limit religious freedom in favor of their own agenda, whether it be "gay rights," same-sex "marriage" or other issues.

We have seen new challenges to religious freedom raised by the advent of same-sex "marriage" at the state level.

As of yet, no one is insisting that same-sex "marriages" be solemnized in church. Nonetheless, [changes in state marriage laws] affect a range of issues, like hiring and faculty contracts in Catholic schools.


Are we entering a new phase in the campaign to challenge misconceptions about religious freedom?

Once, people of all political persuasions in the United States believed that religious liberty was a fundamental human right, constitutionally guaranteed, good for individuals, families and our country — and a cause worth dying for.

Then, there was a shift in thinking: Religious freedom was still constitutionally guaranteed, but it should be counterbalanced by other rights, such as those pertaining to "reproductive freedom" and the freedom to marry.

Now, in the third and most recent stage in thinking about religious freedom, it is considered to be a bad thing. It represents an attempt to forbid people from doing things they have a right to do and to impose irrational opinions on the culture at large, through public advocacy, the delivery of services by religious institutions and their hiring practices.

The majority of people may not see it that way, but we have reached the point that a very hostile view of religious freedom has moved into broad daylight.


Yet religious freedom has long been understood as a vital bulwark against intrusive state power. Churches and other civic institutions mediate between the individual and the state, so why are churches now seen as threats to individual freedom?

All intermediate institutions are, to some extent, under attack, especially the family.

The family is the prime institution that mediates between the power of the state and the individual conscience. Certainly, religious faith can play that role, but the current trend is to privatize religion: As long as churches are just a club where people come to pray, there is complete freedom.

But when the Church speaks or acts to serve the common good or when [religious institutions and individuals] enter the workplace — when they hire or fire — that’s another story.


Would you provide a status report on legislative and legal challenges to the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate?

At the moment, there is no movement from the administration or from Congress. For now, all the activity is centered on the courts.


Do you see any change in public opinion among Catholics and others of goodwill on the emerging threats to religious freedom?

If we were practicing our faith at historic levels, I don’t think these challenges to religious freedom would have gained the traction they have gained. But fewer people go to church and practice their religion, and so these challenges are more politically feasible.

There is a clear link between evangelization and the defense of religious liberty. The more Catholics know, understand, practice and love their faith, the more ready they will be as citizens to defend their own faith and defend the right of their fellow citizens to live out their faith.

That said, I believe there is more support among Catholics, evangelicals, the Orthodox Jewish community and other groups of faith believers and minority religions to defend religious liberty than the popular media would lead us to believe.


At present, the most critical religious-freedom cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are the legal challenges to the HHS mandate filed by two for-profit employers, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, with decisions expected by the end of this month. What are your thoughts about the likely outcome of these cases and what it will mean for other HHS lawsuits filed by religious nonprofits?

It is hard to say how the court will decide the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases, but we hope for a robust defense of the right of people of faith who have founded companies to live their faith in the very enterprise they run.

I would be surprised if the court ruled more broadly, in a way that could affect legal challenges brought by religious nonprofits.


You are the president of the board of the Catholic Benefits Association, which led a class-action lawsuit against the HHS mandate that includes three classes of plaintiffs — exempted church employers, non-exempt religious nonprofits that received an "accommodation" from the White House and for-profit companies. Can you explain how the Catholic Benefits Association got started and why it is among three groups of plaintiffs joining forces to sue the government?

We started the Catholic Benefits Association (CBA) to support Catholic employers of all types that want to provide good health insurance that is affordable and morally compliant with Church teaching — and to defend the rights of Catholic ministries and businesses to provide those benefits consistent with our faith.

CBA is an umbrella organization for both fully insured and self-funded plans. The CBA owns the Catholic insurance company that provides claims administration and stop-loss coverage for Catholic employers of self-funded plans.

Catholic employers are coming together, yoking our buying power to work through a third-party administrator — and to do so in a way that is morally compliant.

We have also set aside some funds so we can litigate our rights. We filed a lawsuit against the HHS mandate in the federal district court for the Western District of Oklahoma, which is part of the 10th Circuit, and just received a ruling that exempted all employer members of the CBA from the contraceptive mandate.

We opened our doors in February, and by the end of May, we had 20 dioceses and an archdiocese, two large Catholic organizations, and we have for-profit employers. Thus far, our membership represents 400 employers serving over 37,000 employees in health-care programs.

I am president of the board. Archbishops [Paul] Coakley of Oklahoma City, Peter Sartain of Seattle and Charles Chaput of Philadelphia are on the board, which will expand as we set up. Very capable people who know the health-insurance business very well are deeply involved.


Does the Catholic Benefits Association provide Catholic employers with a new health-insurance option?

In the past, dioceses came together to insure Church institutions. And over the years, there has been talk about providing similar coverage for any Catholic employer that wanted it.

Some states are more friendly to this kind of insurance plan. Oklahoma is one such state, and we went there to establish CBA. We welcome Catholic employers who are exempt, those who are accommodated and those who are for-profit employers.

We are working very diligently to make sure the cost of administering self-insured plans is competitive, that there are good networks available for our Catholic employers, and that the fee for administering the self-insured plans is competitive with what dioceses now pay. We also want to make sure that the range of services provided in our plans remains strong and without the proscribed services.


The third "Fortnight for Freedom" is scheduled from June 21 to July 4. Why did you choose "Freedom to Serve" as the theme for 2014?

We selected the theme "Freedom to Serve" because what is under attack is not our right to worship, but our right to go beyond our places of worship and serve the poor and the young.

Once again, the opening Mass will be on June 21 at the Baltimore basilica, and the closing Mass on July 4 will be at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

During the fortnight, we invite people to engage in acts of Christian service or become directly involved in the Church’s outreach to the poor and the needy.

One hundred thirty dioceses are participating. Bishops could meet with the staff and leadership of Church-affiliated social services and education programs to talk about the freedom to serve and to make sure that these new challenges are understood well by the people who deliver these services.

School administrators and teachers can get together to talk over these issues and the challenge they pose to the primary mission of Catholic education: to bear witness to our faith and open doors to the transcendent, to the Person of Christ.

Let’s understand that challenges to religious freedom are parallel to challenges to life and family. What is called for is not just a short-term effort, but a movement that brings together life, marriage, service to the needy and religious freedom.

We have to take the long view, as the pro-life movement did in 1973, and ask for God’s grace to keep going. We are talking about the creation of a true civilization of love that is pre-eminently a work of faith.