WASHINGTON (CNS) — After receiving the inaugural Religious Freedom Award May 24, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori encouraged people of all faiths to stand together to defend religious liberty.

Fireworks light up the sky around the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument on Independence Day last year. In a new statement released April 12, an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops' outlined examples of threats to religious liberty and urged Catholic s to resist unjust laws. It called for "a fortnight for freedom" from June 21 to July 4 for prayer, study and public action emphasizing the Christian and American heritage of liberty. (CNS photo/Reuters)

“U.S. bishops and faithful Catholics in this country, numerous though we may be, cannot fight the tide of radical secularism alone,” Archbishop Lori said at the 2012 National Religious Freedom Award Dinner, held at the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.

“I’m here to ask for your help. Together, we can achieve great things,” he said.

Speaking to a crowd of 300 people from many faiths who came from across the country to attend an all-day National Religious Freedom Conference, Archbishop Lori said “fighting the tide of secularism in general, and current threats to religious liberty in particular, can seem like a daunting task, (but) we know that with God, all things are possible, and we know that prayer is the ultimate source of our strength in this fight.”

The conference was titled “Rising Threats to Religious Freedom,” and it was sponsored by the American Religious Freedom Program, which is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Speakers representing a range of religious backgrounds, and officials from state government and advocacy groups, spoke about threats to religious freedom and conscience rights across the United States, on the federal, state and local level, and in the military.

Archbishop Lori, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, warned that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate on contraceptive coverage “has now become the most critical religious liberty challenge that we face in the United States today.”

The mandate “would force virtually all employers, even those with conscientious objections, to provide health coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs,” he said.

It marks, he said, “the first time that the federal government has compelled religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their moral teaching.”

Archbishop Lori noted that earlier that week, Catholic institutions had “been forced to take action by litigation, a course no one desires, but a course that appears to be the only alternative left in order to seek relief from this unjust federal government mandate.”

On May 21, 43 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed a total of 12 lawsuits in federal court around the country challenging the HHS mandate.

Archbishop Lori said an especially problematic part of the mandate is that the federal government defines “which religious institutions are ‘religious enough’ to merit protection of their religious liberty.”

When the health care legislation was being debated more than two years ago, the U.S. bishops urged that it include strong conscience protections. Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act March 21, 2010, and President Barack Obama signed it into law three days later.

When the contraceptive mandate was proposed Aug. 1, 2011, thousands of comments were filed by people across the country urging that Catholic institutions not be forced to facilitate or fund services that violated church teaching.

Archbishop Lori noted that on Jan. 19 of this year, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a group of U.S. bishops visiting the Vatican, warning of growing threats to religious freedom in the United States. Then, he said, the next day, “as if on cue,” HHS announced religious organizations could delay but not opt out of the mandate.

“Despite numerous opportunities to avoid the train wreck,” the archbishop said, the Obama administration Feb. 10 finalized the mandate and also announced that religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives if they were morally opposed to them, but that their health insurers would have to pay for the coverage.

Obama’s announcement about insurers paying the costs was rejected by the bishops and others. Archbishop Lori said it addresses “only a small part of the overall problem, and does so inadequately.”

The mandate’s “unwarranted government definition of religion,” Archbishop Lori said, includes a very narrow definition of a religious employer that would qualify for an exemption — those employers would have to primarily hire and serve people of their own faith.

“This exemption attacks religious freedom by defining it away — by limiting protections essentially to houses of worship, the exemption reduces the freedom of religion to the freedom of worship,” he said.

Archbishop Lori said there has been much misinformation about the issue. “This is not about the Catholic 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 teaching.”

He emphasized the religious freedom fight is not one the nation’s Catholic leaders sought, but instead was forced by the government’s action.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue. It is an American issue,” he said.

Archbishop Lori said the principles at stake — religious liberty and the life and dignity of all human beings — are central to the Catholic faith.

Religious freedom, the first freedom in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, Archbishop Lori said, was seen as an essential part the new United States by the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, he noted, once said: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

Archbishop Lori concluded is talk by inviting people to participate in the June 21 to July 4 “fortnight for freedom” campaign organized by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

At the dinner following the archbishop’s talk, Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program, said the program, and that day’s conference, had been organized to defend the “God-given and constitutional” right of freedom of religion.

“Religious freedom is at the core of all of our freedoms,” he said, announcing that his group would be working to establish caucuses in all 50 states to defend religious liberty.”

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