New Bishops' Committee Responds to Religious Liberty Threats

Archbishop Dolan cites six urgent challenges that have arisen in just three months.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., will head the new bishops ad hoc committee on religious liberty.
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., will head the new bishops ad hoc committee on religious liberty. (photo: CNA photo)

Washington, D.C. — Seeking to fortify the Church’s response to the “erosion of freedom of religion in America,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

The new committee will be headed by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport.

The announcement to form the committee was made Sept. 30, the same day as the deadline for comments registering concerns about the interim rules —  issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services —  which mandate that contraceptive services and surgical sterilization be included in virtually all employee health coverage.

The coincidence, whether intentional or not, signaled that the bishops possess firsthand experience with First Amendment challenges posed by a range of legislative, judicial and federal actions.

“The bishops have concluded that religious liberty is under assault from a variety of fronts in the U.S.  —  at the federal, state and cultural level,” said Bishop Lori, in an interview following the announcement today. “They have identified this issue as an important priority, and I am humbled and happy to help lead this effort.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the bishops conference, signaled that the new subcommittee would be one of several initiatives designed to strengthen the conference’s response and bring together a broad cross-section of churches and legal scholars to oppose attacks on the First Amendment.

“[T]he establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee is one element of what I expect to be a new moment in the history of our conference,” stated Archbishop Dolan in a letter to conference members. “Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider.  If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave.” 

Archbishop Dolan expressed concern about the “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.”

A press release that included Archbishop Dolan’s letter provided a list of “six religious liberty concerns arising just since June.” 

Church Being Pressured

Beyond the HHS rules mandating free coverage of contraceptive services, another concern has been an HHS requirement that the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) provide the “full range of reproductive services” — meaning abortion and contraception — to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts.
Meanwhile, Catholic Relief Services now faces new requirements by the United States Agency for International Development to provide condom distribution in HIV prevention programs, as well as requiring contraception within international relief and development programs. 

Further, the Justice Department has begun “presenting DOMA’s support for traditional marriage as bigotry. The Department started filing briefs in July actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice,” reported the USCCB press release.

“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,” Archbishop Dolan said.

Archbishop Dolan’s own New York State, he continued, redefined marriage this year to include members of the same sex, and the law grants “only a very narrow religious exemption. Already, county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions, and gay rights advocates are publicly emphasizing how little religious freedom protection people and groups will enjoy under the new law.”

At present, the HHS mandate remains the most urgent concern. Bishop Lori described the “religious exemption” included in the interim regulation as “unacceptably narrow and as an attempt by the government to define our own mission —  to indicate that our mission, beyond our borders forces us, in their minds, to violate our conscience and teaching.”

Bishop Lori also noted a key First Amendment case that will be addressed by the Supreme Court this term. The high court next week will hear oral arguments in the Hosanna-Tabor case, in which the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have filed briefs supporting a former teacher at a Lutheran school who challenged the Lutheran Church’s right to fire her. The “ministerial exception” in the constitution has given religious institutions in the United States the right to hire and fire individuals working in their institutions, not only ordained ministers.

Bishop Lori described “ministerial exception” as constitutional doctrine that gives us the freedom to discern who should or should not be a minister. The Justice Department’s position in this case “attacks the ministerial exception at its roots.”

Connecticut Victory

Two years ago, Bishop Lori effectively fought back a legislative effort in Connecticut that challenged the right of bishops and pastors to administer Church institutions, bringing thousands of Catholic protestors to the state capitol. Since then, he’s written a pastoral letter and spoken out in public forums on religious liberty. That legacy may have played a role in his appointment as the chairman of the new subcommittee.

“What is happening in our culture is that organized religion is being marginalized. This means that religion is being reduced to a private avocation — if you want to go to church on Sunday, fine. But if you want to have institutions that function in the culture and seek to exert an influence on the culture, that is not fine.  We have to struggle. The Church and its institutions are mediating structures between the power of the state and the individual. Religious freedom is vital to our culture.”

The conscience issues posed by the passage of the new health bill and its attendant regulations have led some critics to question whether the USCCB should continue to express conditional support for Obamacare. Bishop Lori acknowledged that it won’t be easy to overcome the problems created by mandated contraceptive services and other conscience issues. But he insisted the bishops must fight for the right of Catholic institutions to remain in the mainstream.

“We should not abandon the goal of helping the poor and needy, nor abandon the need to assert our religious liberty,” he said.

New Assertiveness

Archbishop Dolan established the ad hoc committee after the USCCB Administrative Committee Sept. 13-14 meeting in Washington, D.C. The formation of the new committee will fortify the conference’s effort to remain informed, strengthen alliances with other Christian denominations and religions and confront challenges posed to religious freedom throughout the nation. The subcommittee will have two full-time staff member at the USCCB, a lawyer “expert in the area of religious freedom law, and a lobbyist who will handle both religious liberty and marriage issues,” according to the press release.

In his letter, the archbishop noted that the former USCCB president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, had sent private letters to President Obama on religious liberty in the context of redefining marriage and that none of those letters received a response.

Archbishop Dolan added that he had also offered to discuss religious liberties with the president; he did not confirm whether he had received a response to that invitation.

The establishment of the subcommittee marks an effort to organize a broad-based response to threats against religious freedom. The initiative suggests Archbishop Dolan’s more assertive style of leadership than his scholarly predecessor, and suggests that the bishops are prepared to take a leadership role in a new chapter of the culture wars.

The new committee will collaborate with top legal scholars. Among those likely allies is John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, and a former professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and Boston College. Today, Garvey wrote an op-ed article for The Washington Post calling for broader religious exemption of the HHS rules for contraceptive services.

Religious freedom groups and constitutional scholars applauded the decision to form the new subcommittee.

“The formation of this committee could not come at a more important time for believers of all faiths,” said William Mumma, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who said his organization had filed an official response to HHS regulations.

Stated Richard Garnett, an associate dean of Notre Dame Law School, and a top scholar on constitutional issues who is likely to be part of the subcommittee’s brain trust, “This is good news.”

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