By Kathleen Naab
WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 14, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. bishops say they are “strongly unified and intensely focused” in opposition to threats against religious freedom, specifically the threat posed by the federal government’s plan to mandate abortifacients and sterilizations in health insurance coverage.
The Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gathered today in their March meeting, released a statement titled “United for Religious Freedom.”
The declaration responds to the Health and Human Services mandate originally released in January, and then slightly modified in February, which would require Catholic institutions to pay for contraception, abortifacients and sterilizations in their employee health care plans. These “services” are included under the banner of “preventive care,” the label used for treatments such as vaccinations and cancer screening.
Amid the media flurry surrounding the issue, the bishops’ statement today proposed: “[W]e wish to clarify what this debate is—and is not—about. This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds. This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block. This is not about the Bishops’ somehow ‘banning contraception,’ when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago.
“Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church—consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions—to act against Church teachings. This is not a matter of opposition to universal health care, which has been a concern of the Bishops’ Conference since 1919, virtually at its founding. This is not a fight we want or asked for, but one forced upon us by government on its own timing. Finally, this is not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American issue.”
The statement then offered three points the bishops see at the heart of the debate:
— An unwarranted government definition of religion. The statement explained that the mandate implies the federal government defines what constitutes a religious employer: “employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith.”
“We are deeply concerned about this new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry,” the bishops wrote. “We are commanded both to love and to serve the Lord; laws that protect our freedom to comply with one of these commands but not the other are nothing to celebrate.”
— A mandate to act against our teachings. “Those deemed by HHS not to be ‘religious employers’ will be forced by government to violate their own teachings within their very own institutions. This is not only an injustice in itself, but it also undermines the effective proclamation of those teachings to the faithful and to the world.”
— A violation of personal civil rights. “The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values. They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing ‘services’ contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption.”
The bishops assure that they are going to continue in their efforts to oppose the mandate, including by pursuing “legislation to restore the same level of religious freedom we have enjoyed until just recently.”
They concluded, though, by exhorting the faithful to prayer and penance “for our leaders and for the complete protection of our First Freedom—religious liberty—which is not only protected in the laws and customs of our great nation, but rooted in the teachings of our great Tradition.”
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