Bishops Issue Statement on Religious Liberty

'An unjust law cannot be obeyed,' they state, in face of growing threats to freedom.

Archbishop William Lori is not counseling immediate civil disobedience, but said Americans may be faced with a Thomas More-like decision.
Archbishop William Lori is not counseling immediate civil disobedience, but said Americans may be faced with a Thomas More-like decision. (photo: Diocese of Bridgeport)

WASHINGTON — Marking a new era of intense church-state friction, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a hard-hitting statement today that defends the free exercise of religious institutions in the United States and abroad.

In doing so, they oppose any “accommodation” with “unjust” laws and outline plans for prayer and catechetical initiatives designed to strengthen an embattled constitutional right.

“Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty,” issued by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a manifesto that celebrates the central role of religious freedom in democratic society and governance and expresses alarm about political and legal attempts to redefine, and ultimately constrain, the “first freedom.”

In the document, the conference unveils plans for a “'fortnight for freedom,' in which bishops in their own dioceses might arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending our first freedom.”

The document proposes that “June 21 — the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More — to July 4, Independence Day, be dedicated to this ‘fortnight for freedom.’”

The statement injects a palpable note of urgency, clearly identifying immediate threats to religious liberty, and calling on Catholics to shake off their complacency and prepare to confront a new and daunting reality.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices,” reads the conference document, in a reference to the federal contraception mandate, approved on Jan. 20, and President Obama’s subsequent “accommodation,” which the bishops rejected as “unacceptable.”

“If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith,” stated the document.

Asked whether the statement calls on U.S. Catholics to refuse to comply with the mandate, Archbishop-designate William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, noted during an interview that the statement’s forthright comments “do not mean that we go to civil disobedience in the first instance. But it means that we should exercise our rights and seek redress from all three branches of the government, as we are with the HHS mandate."

“But if a law is asking us to violate our conscience,” he acknowledged, “then we could be faced with a Thomas More choice.”


‘Long-Term Struggle’

The archbishop-designate said the new document looks beyond the current challenge of the HHS contraception mandate “to an array of challenges to religious liberty. We see this as a long-term struggle and something that will be a feature of our religious life for a long time to come.”

The document clarifies what is at issue in the HHS mandate dispute, citing Archbishop-designate Lori’s testimony before Congress this winter:

“This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”

During an interview, Archbishop-designate Lori also confirmed that the conference was organizing a response to the Obama administration’s latest initiative designed to address the concerns of self-insured religious institutions that could not benefit from the administration’s suggestion that objecting religious institutions could transfer the financial responsibility for providing co-pay-free contraception services to their insurance companies.

In the wake of President Obama’s Feb. 10 “accommodation,” opponents of the HHS mandate have expressed frustration with the lack of resolution to the conflict, and some question the value of sustaining a dialogue with the administration. But Archbishop-designate Lori said the bishops would continue to work on parallel tracks — communication with the administration while advancing legal and legislative remedies.

“We have to stay the course,” he said. “We can’t say, ‘We’ve already made our comments,’ nor can we say, ‘We made comments, and they didn't do any good.’ We must be charitable, civil, clear and persistent.”

The 12-page statement on religious liberty uses religious and secular arguments and sources to foster respect for religious freedom and foment public resistance to federal and state laws that suppress the free exercise of religious institutions and conscience rights.

“The bishops acknowledge that the Catholic Church has benefited greatly from the American system of religious liberty. They point out, correctly, that the Church’s teaching on religious freedom was highly influenced by American Catholics and by the protections afforded the American Catholic minority by the First Amendment,” said Thomas Farr, director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.

“In part, out of gratitude for this legacy, but also speaking from the heart of the Church and from a sense of civic responsibility, the bishops now sound the alarm: Religious liberty is under attack in America today,” Farr added.

‘New Level of Candor’

In a break from conference statements that focused on the articulation of broad theological and moral principles, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” specifies concrete threats to religious liberty, including the federal contraception mandate.

The statement’s authors call on the nation’s political establishment to uphold the Constitution and defend the role of religious witness as central to the common good.

“This ought not to be a partisan issue. The Constitution is not for Democrats or Republicans or Independents. It is for all of us,” reads the statement. Here, the authors express frustration with election-year politics, which have led some Democrats to mischaracterize the Church’s opposition to the contraception mandate as a “war on women.”

The statement notes other less visible threats to religious freedom, including: attempts to limit the rights of Christian students on U.S. campuses; state immigration bills that penalize churches that serve illegal immigrants; state anti-discrimination and same-sex “marriage” laws that force Catholic adoption and foster-care agencies to close their doors; and the Obama administration’s decision not to renew federal contracts with Catholic humanitarian programs that bar contraception and abortion services to those in need.

“The statement brings a new level of candor to the way bishops speak about this issue. On matters of substance, and most especially on matters like religious freedom, we can't afford to be timid,” said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty and the author of Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.


More Than Worship

In recent years, U.S. Catholic leaders and constitutional scholars have raised the alarm about attempts to redefine and reduce the first freedom to “freedom of worship” rather than a more robust understanding that embraces the full range of religious witness in the public square.

“In today's context, 'freedom of worship' is a kind of code language. It carries the following unstated message: Keep your religious idiosyncrasies inside the church building and out of the public square. That's utterly alien to the thinking of the Founders. It's hostile to the whole lived experience of American religious freedom,” Archbishop Chaput told the Register.

The statement affirms that “religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?

“Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.”

When the Obama administration first unveiled the HHS contracepiton mandate last fall,  the U.S. bishops immediately protested the rule’s narrow definition of what constitutes a religious entity protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Only churches and organizations that serve and employ coreligionists are exempted, while Catholic social agencies, hospitals and universities must comply.

“The bishops rightly say that the Church’s institutional ministries ought not to be put to the unjust choice between continuing to provide their services, and retention of their Catholic identity,” said Gerard Bradley, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. 


 “The bishops could have even more strenuously made the point that these apostolates contribute to the common good not only by teaching, healing, and feeding, but also by integrating earthly service with the Gospel. Their chief value is a true and perspicuous witness to the Catholic faith,” Bradley suggested.

John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, a constitutional scholar and a consultant to the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, suggested that  the effort to redefine and contain religious witness reflects the secularization of the culture, in marked contrast to the faith-inspired social movements that have shaped American political history.

“The abolitionists and the leaders of the civil-rights movement were religious leaders themselves, and their message was the message of the Gospel. The Catholic Church’s campaign against legal abortion also is a form of religious witness,” said Garvey, making the point that a redefinition of the first freedom could result in a redefinition of what it means to be an American.

The U.S. bishops' long-awaited statement on religious liberty is expected to be the centerpiece of a broad and intense effort by Catholic leaders to educate and energize the faithful, preparing them for a world where religious freedom will not be secured without a fight, and perhaps hard, difficult choices.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.