Bishops’ Group: Religious Freedom Under Siege

Posted October 3, 2011 at 6:18pm

A new lobbying group being created by the Roman Catholic Church appears to have made the Obama administration its prime target.

In a letter last Thursday explaining the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cited recent decisions by the administration favoring gay and abortion rights as proof that religious freedom is under attack “increasingly and in unprecedented ways.”

“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,” wrote the group’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York.

The group of bishops he leads has been politically active in the past. They nearly derailed President Barack Obama’s health care plan by raising concerns that abortions would be federally subsidized. But the new ad hoc committee is set to become a permanent institution for advocacy work — a first for the Catholic bishops — and Dolan said it marks “a new moment in the history of our conference.”

After the bishops’ efforts against the health care law in 2009, Dolan’s selection as president last fall was seen as a sign that the group planned to continue its lobbying on social issues. The creation of a new committee dedicated to advocacy has some critics concerned that it will serve as a platform to undermine the rights of gays and lesbians.

Dolan has tapped Connecticut Bishop William Lori to run the operation and plans to hire a constitutional lawyer and a policy expert to help with lobbying efforts. The committee will also help coordinate efforts among religious groups and more than 70 million Christians that the organization considers its constituents.

The goal is to “form a united and forceful front in defense of religious freedom in our nation,” Dolan explained in his letter, highlighting six recent threats to religious liberty.

Five of those centered on actions by federal agencies under the Obama administration. In the absence of Congressional action on gay and abortion rights, the Justice, Health and Human Services and State departments have taken steps to appease Democratic constituencies, religious conservatives believe.

In February, Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that allowed states to ignore same-sex partnerships legally recognized in other states. In August, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that insurers would soon be required to cover women’s preventive reproductive services such as birth control and voluntary sterilization.

“The church sees a ratcheting up on the part of the government in these areas as examples of violations of religious liberty,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops’ conference.

In his letter, Dolan also criticized federal requirements that could require a Catholic charitable organization to provide abortion and contraception services to the trafficking victims it serves. Additionally, the archbishop raised concerns about condom distribution in HIV-prevention programs abroad, as well as an upcoming Supreme Court case on the separation of church and state in which the Justice Department has argued that churches should be required to follow anti-discrimination hiring laws.

Only one policy mentioned in the letter did not come directly from the administration: the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, where Dolan is archbishop. He has called that law unjust, immoral and an “ominous threat” to American society.

Given Dolan’s history on the issue, gay-rights activists say the new religious liberty committee is just another way for the archbishop to continue his efforts against the gay and lesbian community.

“In fact, there is no threat to the Catholic Church’s right to advocate whatever they want with regards to their beliefs,” the blog “Lez Get Real,” which closely follows policies affecting gays and lesbians, wrote on Friday.

Walsh disagreed, saying “an intentional anti-religious hostility” has been building in recent years and that the most glaring examples of it come from the administration. In addition to lobbying, the religious liberty committee will be tasked with educating the public about that idea.

“We’ll bring the issue to the fore,” Walsh said. “We’re not hiring your K Street lobbyists. We’ll hire a constitutional lawyer who can really look carefully at these issues and hire a policy advocacy person who can advocate the church’s position.”

In the letter, Dolan also criticizes Obama directly, saying the bishops’ previous efforts to reach out to the president have been ignored. The creation of this committee could be one way to apply pressure on Obama to meet with and consult the Catholic bishops.

“I have offered to meet with the President to discuss these concerns and to impress upon him the dire nature of these actions by [the] government,” Dolan wrote.

In April, Obama hosted an Easter prayer breakfast for religious leaders. Dolan was not invited, but other Catholic leaders who are members of the bishops’ conference attended. Also present was Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association and one of a group of nuns that publicly defied the bishops by backing the president during the health care debate.

Clarification: Oct. 4, 2011

The online version of this story was updated to clarify that Sister Carol Keehan was one of several Catholic leaders, including members of the bishops’ conference, who attended the president’s Easter prayer breakfast in April.