Catholic bishops issue 'call to action' on religious freedom

All Americans should be "on guard" as the Obama administration threatens religious liberty, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared Thursday.

The call to action is spelled out in a document, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," developed by the conference's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. It urges laity to work to protect the First Amendment and calls on dioceses across the country to schedule a "religious liberty fortnight" June 21 to July 4 to focus "all the energies the Catholic community can muster" for religious liberty.

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"We need … to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time," the document says. "As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad."

The church leadership's relationship with the Obama administration hit new lows after the administration announced in January that employers would have to offer birth control without co-pays under President Obama's healthcare reform law. Republicans jumped into the fray and have tried and failed to pass legislation allowing employers to opt out of any healthcare mandates they find immoral.

The chairman of the committee, Baltimore archbishop-designate William Lori, testified at a House Oversight panel hearing on the mandate in February. Democrats immediately panned the hearing after committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) didn't invite any women to the first panel.

The bishops also criticize recent state laws outlawing churches from "harboring" illegal immigrants, among other state and local edicts. But their main beef is with the Obama administration.

In addition to the "mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs," the new document reiterates concerns that the administration recently refused to renew a contract for the conference's Migration and Refugee Services to care for victims of human trafficking because the group refuses to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services, which would be in violation of Catholic teaching. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is allied with the bishops on a number of issues, issued a statement saying the bishops are the ones who are imposing their beliefs on others.

"While the ACLU firmly supports the free practice of religion and belief — including the right of churches to minister to people regardless of their immigration status — we do not believe that any religious institution has the right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate or deny services to the public, and certainly should not expect to receive government funds to do so," the ACLU said in a statement.