Bishop tells House panel of ‘grave threats to religious liberty’

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Recent “grave threats to religious liberty” serve as “grim validations” of the U.S. bishops’ decision last June to create a special committee to address those issues, Bishop William C. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., told a House subcommittee Oct. 26.

Bishop Lori, appointed in late September to chair the bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence require government “to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment.”

But in recent days, he said, “the bishops of the United States have watched with increasing alarm as this great national legacy of religious liberty, so profoundly in harmony with our own teachings, has been subject to ever more frequent assault and ever more rapid erosion.”

Bishop William C. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., testifies before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 26. Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he told U.S. representatives that the government has "a perennial obligation to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment." (CNS/Joshua Roberts)

In written testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Bishop Lori called for “corrective action by Congress” to address six areas of particular concern:

— Regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in August that would mandate coverage of contraception and sterilization in most private health insurance plans.

— A new requirement by HHS that would require the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services to agree to provide the “full range” of reproductive services, including abortion and contraception, to human trafficking victims and unaccompanied refugee minors.

— The U.S. Agency for International Development’s requirement that Catholic Relief Services and other contractors include condom distribution in their HIV prevention activities and provide contraception in a range of international relief and development programs.

— The Department of Justice’s actions to mischaracterize the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which states that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, as an act of bigotry and to actively attack its constitutionality.

— The Justice Department’s efforts to undermine the “ministerial exception” that exempts religious institutions from some civil laws when it comes to hiring and firing.

— State actions on same-sex marriage that have resulted in Catholic Charities agencies in Illinois being “driven out of the adoption and foster care business” and some county clerks in New York state facing legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions.

The bishop called those concerns “only the most recent instances in a broader trend of erosion of religious liberty in the United States.”

“The ultimate root causes of these threats are profound, and lie beyond the scope of this hearing or even this august body to fix,” he said. “But we can — and must — also treat the symptoms immediately, lest the disease spread so quickly that the patient is overcome before the ultimate cure can be formulated and delivered.”

Bishop Lori urged members of the House of Representatives to pass three bills that would “go a long way toward guaranteeing religious liberty and freedom of conscience for religious employers, health insurers and health care providers.” They are the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179).

He also called for a congressional hearing or other investigation into “the illegal conditions that HHS and USAID are placing on religious providers of human services.” He said new statutes might be necessary “to create new conscience protections, but more likely to create private rights of action for those whose rights under the existing protections have been violated.”

“Unfortunately, the authority to enforce the applicable conscience protections now lies principally with the federal agencies that may be violating the protections,” Bishop Lori said.

He urged House members to “resist legislative efforts to repeal” the Defense of Marriage Act, including the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 1116).

“The religious freedom threats to marriage at the state level may fall beyond the scope of authority of Congress to control — except to the extent that state adoption and foster care services are federally funded,” he said.

Other witnesses at the hearing on “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States” were the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Colby M. May, director and senior counsel of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice.