WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 2, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Religious liberty is being threatened in the United States to an extent that warrants a new ad hoc committee to address the growing concern, according to the nation's bishops.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced Friday the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty with Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, named as chair.

The announcement came in a letter two days before the government closed a public comment period regarding a new mandate that will force private health care plans to include abortive drugs as "preventive care."

That mandate is one of the issues currently topping the list of the bishops' concerns about religious freedom.

Support for ad hoc committee work will include adding two full-time staff 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.

Bishop Lori, 60, said he welcomed "the opportunity to work with fellow bishops and men and women of expertise in constitutional law so as to defend and promote the God-given gift of religious liberty recognized and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States."

"This ad hoc committee aims to address the increasing threats to religious liberty in our society so that the Church's mission may advance unimpeded and the rights of believers of any religious persuasion or none may be respected," he added.


In his letter to bishops to announce the ad hoc committee, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, USCCB president, said religious freedom "in its many and varied applications for Christians and people of faith, is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America."

"This is most particularly so in an 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," he said. 

Archbishop Dolan added that "the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee is one element of what I expect to be a new moment in the history of our conference. 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."

Concern list

Archbishop Dolan offered a six-point list of religious liberty concerns arising just since June:

•Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations that would mandate the coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in all private health insurance plans, which could coerce church employers to sponsor and pay for services they oppose. The new rules do not protect insurers or individuals with religious or moral objections to the mandate.

•An HHS requirement that USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services provide the "full range of reproductive services" -- meaning abortion and contraception -- to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts. The position mirrors the position urged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the ongoing lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of MRS's contracts as a violation of religious liberty.

•Catholic Relief Services' concern that the U.S. Agency for International Development, under the Department of State, is increasingly requiring condom distribution in HIV prevention programs, as well as requiring contraception within international relief and development programs.

•The Justice Department's attack on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), presenting DOMA's support for traditional marriage as bigotry. In July, the Department started filing briefs actively attacking DOMA's constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice. "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.

•The Justice Department's recent attack on the critically important "ministerial exception," a constitutional doctrine accepted by every court of appeals in the country that leaves to churches (not government) the power to make employment decisions concerning persons working in a ministerial capacity. In a case to be heard this term in the U.S. Supreme Court, the department attacked the very existence of the exception.

•New York State's new law redefining marriage, with 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.

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On the Net:

Archbishop Dolan's letter to bishops announcing the committee: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/upload/dolan-letter-on-religious-liberty.pdf