Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington gives a talk on threats to religious liberty during a Theology on Tap program at Ireland's Four Fields in Washington May 22. The talk came one day after the Archdiocese of Washington and 42 other Catholic entities f iled suit in federal courts around the country to stop three government agencies from implementing a mandate that would require them to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their health plans. (CNS photo/Rafael Crisostomo, Catholic Standard)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of young adults, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl encouraged them to pray and stand up for religious freedom.

Such freedom is being threatened, he said, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that would force Catholic institutions to provide employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, all of which are morally opposed by the Catholic Church.

“It (the threat to religious liberty) is real. It’s not hyperbole,” the cardinal said May 22. “It (the HHS mandate) is the most direct challenge to our religious liberty we’ve ever faced on the federal level.”

The cardinal spoke to an estimated 250 people gathered at an Irish pub in Washington for Theology on Tap, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Young Adult Ministry.

His talk came one day after the archdiocese filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to challenge the mandate. The local lawsuit was one of 12 actions filed nationwide, on behalf of 43 Catholic institutions, including the Archdiocese of New York and the University of Notre Dame.

In Washington, The Catholic University of America and the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities, Consortium of Catholic Academies and Archbishop Carroll High School are also plaintiffs in that legal action.

“The freedom of religion is part of the DNA of being American,” Cardinal Wuerl said as he opened his talk.

He said the freedom of religion enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights has allowed people of faith “to exercise our religion freely” in the United States. But he emphasized that religious freedom is “part of who we are, grounded in our human nature” by God, and “it’s not something the state grants us.”

“Our religious freedom is intrinsic to us — our freedom to follow Christ as we choose, our freedom to worship as we choose, our freedom to live out the Gospel,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Wuerl said the key problem of the HHS mandate is that it doesn’t allow for a meaningful religious exemption for the Catholic Church and other faith groups, which provide extensive networks of educational, health care and social service programs that serve all people.

“We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper,” said the cardinal, who noted that previous federal laws provided exemptions that safeguarded religious groups from being forced to violate their beliefs.

“The new regulation has imbedded in this a new definition of what makes you religious enough to qualify for an exemption — you can only care for your own (denomination) and you can only hire your own. … (The mandate says if) you don’t qualify for the exemption, you must provide for all services you find morally reprehensible,” the cardinal said.

The mandate’s “radical new definition” of religious ministry poses an unprecedented threat to the religious freedom of Catholic institutions, Cardinal Wuerl said.

He said the lawsuit was filed because related religious freedom legislation is deadlocked in Congress, and the White House in negotiations has refused to offer a meaningful exemption to religious groups.

The lawsuit is about protecting religious freedom, not about contraception, he said.

“They (contraceptives) are available, accessible and affordable. We’re not stopping anybody from getting contraceptives. We’re just saying, ‘Don’t make us provide them'” in violation of Catholic teaching.

Cardinal Wuerl said the U.S. Catholic bishops have supported universal access to health care for the past century. But, he added, government efforts to provide that access must be done in a fair manner respecting the constitutional rights of people of faith.

“How you do it (provide access) makes all the difference,” he said.

When asked by a young adult what those in the audience could do to help stand up for religious freedom, Cardinal Wuerl noted how Pope Benedict XVI has called on Catholics to take up the work of the new evangelization — to deepen their understanding of the faith, to be confident in the truth of the faith, and to share it with others.

“Imagine if every one of us went out and told the story of our faith, what it means to us, how it’s impacting our lives,” the cardinal said.

After his talk, the cardinal joined the young adults in reciting a prayer for religious liberty. The audience members also were encouraged to find out more about the issue by visiting the archdiocese’s new website,

Young adults interviewed afterward said they appreciated the cardinal’s message.

“Like he said, if we don’t fight for it (religious liberty), it can be stamped out,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Caruso told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper. “We need to take this message to our workplaces.”

His wife, Nicole, said it is important for Catholics to be proud of their faith “and not be afraid to share it.”

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By Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard in Washington.