LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — With the HHS mandate coming into force in a matter of weeks, a group of lay Catholics are gaining strength in their campaign to wake up Catholics in their parishes — and Americans of all faiths — to the dangers posed to U.S. religious liberty.
Little more than a year old, the nonpartisan Catholics for Freedom of Religion has begun educating and activating Catholics in Long Island, N.Y., parishes, building a grassroots effort to promote and defend religious liberty in the United States.
"It is the bishops’ role to teach, but it’s our job, as the laity, to defend religious liberty," said Barbara Samuells, co-founder of Catholics for Freedom of Religion (CFFR).
Samuells told the Register that CFFR has established nine chapters in Long Island parishes, since she and her friend Eileen Wolfe started the group back in April 2012.
By word of mouth, individuals from Illinois, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have contacted CFFR about starting chapters at their home parishes, she said.
"We want to educate and empower people in churches all across America about freedom of religion," Samuells said.
The CFFR has a three-pronged mission: First, it will generate a grassroots coalition to awaken Catholics and people of faith with parish or church-based chapters; second, it will educate Catholic youth with a curriculum that teaches the history of religious liberty in the United States; third, it will foster youth engagement by promoting religious liberty through St. Thomas More student clubs.
"We really attempt to give people a whole background," Samuells said, "so they not only understand freedom of religion, but also understand how important it is to our country’s past, present and future."
Up to 150 people have attended the first meeting of a Catholics for Freedom of Religion chapter, Samuells said, noting that pastors have been generally supportive, especially when they learn that CFFR is nonpartisan and "very observant" of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guidelines for 501(c)3 organizations.
A 40-page manual (available at CatholicsforFreedomofReligion.org) outlines how to create chapters in parishes. It recommends gathering a core of two to six people in the parish and gives information on how to engage the pastor and get his approval, as well as how to plan the first meeting.
The manual includes a brief summary of the HHS mandate, PowerPoint presentation materials and helpful scripts and talking points.
CFFR has contacted Catholic educators on Long Island to discuss plans for a pilot curriculum on religious liberty and student clubs at high schools.
The group has the enthusiastic support of Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who asked the Long Island CFFR chapters for help in generating a rally for the "Fortnight for Freedom" this year.
"We’ve found them to be exactly what Bishop Murphy and Cardinal Dolan [Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB] had been talking about: that if there is going to be any change to the HHS mandate and these issues, it has to come from the grassroots, the laity," Sean Dolan, Bishop Murphy’s spokesman, told the Register.
Spokesman Dolan said the diocese has been working with CFFR over the past few months to build support and lead the diocese’s "Fortnight for Freedom" rally, scheduled for June 29.
CFFR members earlier had organized 100 members to march in a Memorial Day parade, Samuells said.
"The response from the crowd was incredible," she recalled. "We are going to do more parades because it gets people to ask questions."
The diocese’s spokesman said Bishop Murphy is "very happy" with CFFR’s effort to raise awareness about emerging threats to religious liberty.
"Because, all of a sudden, we’re going to wake up one day and find our freedoms are gone or greatly muted," Dolan said.
That day may be coming fast: Aug. 1 is the deadline set by President Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services Department for religious-based organizations, including the Catholic Church, to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilizations in their health-care plans.
The U.S. Catholic bishops are promoting the "Fortnight for Freedom," two weeks for Catholics to fast, pray and educate themselves about religious liberty and the dangers the Church faces from the HHS mandate.
But Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the Register that the fortnight is not enough, and the Church’s future depends on the laity.
"If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter," Archbishop Chaput said.
Chaput explained that the bishops have a duty to "preach basic principles" on politics, economics and social policy.
"But, overall, Catholic witness in the secular world should be the work of prudent, faithful laypeople," he said.
According to Apostolicum Actuositatem, the Vatican II decree on the apostolate of the laity, lay Catholics have "the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation." The conciliar document notes that, without the activity of the laity, "the apostolate of the pastors is often unable to achieve its full effectiveness."
"The religious-freedom fight needs to be owned and led by laypeople," said Archbishop Chaput, who noted that the sex-abuse scandals have made it easy for the mass media to marginalize the voice of the bishops.
Even so, he said, the laity must realize they retain the power to inflict "a political cost" on the officials responsible for violating their religious freedom, or else they will have "no one to blame but themselves when they find that their liberties have gone thin."
As the laity embrace the cause of religious liberty, however, they must battle confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of the problem.
Religious-liberty advocates must help the public understand that this new crusade is not about promoting a particular religion, but promoting freedom of religion, said Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.
"They need to do it in a way that shows the issue is not related to any specific faith," he explained.
For her part, Samuells said that CFFR is an ecumenical effort, and it operates under the umbrella of Americans for Freedom of Religion.
Walsh told the Register that building a grassroots campaign for religious freedom has a few challenges. While he estimated 80%-90% of Americans of faith are still "staunchly devoted to religious freedom," poor coverage in established media, a sense of lethargy and the lack of a "K-12 civics education" has made it tough to build a religious-liberty constituency.
"It’s going to take a lot of work, but we have a lot of things in our favor," Walsh said, pointing to America’s rich legacy as a beacon of religious freedom. "Really, it is a matter of getting the message properly communicated to the faithful so they can engage in this in a consistent manner."
But even if the HHS mandate is withdrawn tomorrow, Samuells said the CFFR is here to stay "as a permanent ministry in the Church."
"God gave me this freedom, but it’s up to me to defend that freedom," she said. "We need to all realize the only one who will defend your freedom for certain is the person sitting in your chair."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.