Feb 14 Catholic bishops, energized by a
battle over contraception funding, are planning an aggressive
campaign to rally Americans against a long list of government
measures which they say intrude on religious liberty.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans to work with
other religious groups, including evangelical Christians, on an
election-year public relations campaign that may include TV and
radio ads, social media marketing and a push for pastors and
priests to raise the subject from the pulpit.
"We want to make it something that will get peoples'
attention," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.
The bishops spent the past few weeks pressing President
Barack Obama to exempt religious employers from a federal
mandate that all health insurance plans offer free birth
Obama agreed to modify the mandate a bit, so that
religious employers wouldn't have to pay for contraceptive
coverage directly. That satisfied some Catholic groups, but the
bishops were not mollified. They want the mandate repealed
And now, they are aiming higher still, lobbying
Congress to enact a law that would let any employer opt out
of covering any medical treatment he disagreed with as a matter
of his personal faith.
So, for instance, a pizzeria owner who objected to childhood
vaccinations on religious grounds would be able to request an
insurance plan that did not cover them, in effect overriding a
federal requirement that vaccinations be provided free with any
Leaving coverage decisions up to each employers' conscience
might create chaos in the marketplace, "but chaos is sometimes
the price you pay for freedom," said Richard Land, the president
of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty
Commission, who is backing the bishops whole-heartedly.
Democrats, who control the Senate, are likely to block any
bill with such broad opt-out provisions.
But supporters, including prominent Republicans, say they
will keep pushing for the change, which fits into a wider theme
of defending individual freedoms against government intrusion
which is expected to play prominently in the November election.
MESSAGE FROM THE PULPIT
Along with the Southern Baptist Convention, the National
Association of Evangelicals stands ready to contribute money and
manpower to the bishops' campaign, said Galen Carey, an
association vice president.
The group is also considering the unprecedented step of
asking pastors of every evangelical denomination across the
country to read their congregations an open letter protesting
the contraception mandate as an assault on religious liberty.
Liberal groups are already launching counter-attacks.
This week, NARAL Pro-Choice America, which works to keep
abortion legal and expand contraceptive access, spent $250,000
to air radio ads in four swing states that will be crucial to
the presidential election -- Colorado, Florida, Virginia and
The ads urge support for Obama and his effort to ensure that
"women of all faiths, no matter where they work," can get free
birth control with their health insurance.
More than 30 organizations supporting Obama teamed up to
create the Coalition to Protect Women's Health Care, which has
started an online petition and plans further action.
The coalition includes two unions that represent millions of
workers and have well-honed networks for getting out political
messages, the Service Employees International Union and the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Obama's supporters say the president went far enough to
accommodate religious institutions when he announced last week
that they wouldn't have to pay for free birth control as part of
their insurance plans; he said instead their insurers would be
required to pick up the costs.
The bishops denounced this as a gimmick that doesn't solve
anything, especially for the many religious hospitals and
schools that self-insure their employees.
"Reasonable people should be able to work through the
details of this and find common ground," said John Gehring,
Catholic outreach coordinator for the liberal group Faith in
Public Life. "But election-year politics doesn't make for cool
BATTLE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
The Conference of Catholic Bishops began preparing months
ago for a battle royale over religious freedom. Last fall, the
conference bulked up its staff, hiring a lawyer who had devoted
his career to religious liberty cases and a lobbyist to press
the cause in Washington. The group also created a special
committee on religious liberty, chaired by Bishop Lori.
In a September letter announcing the committee, Archbishop
Timothy Dolan declared that religious freedom "is now
increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in
America." He and other officials offer many examples of that
On the federal level, the Obama administration has cancelled
or threatened to cancel contracts awarded to Catholic charities
for work to prevent HIV and to help victims of sex trafficking.
The administration says the charities have to provide services
such as condoms, emergency contraception and abortion referrals
to maintain the contracts; the charities protest that such
conditions violate their religious faith.
Several states, meanwhile, have required adoption agencies
that receive public funds to treat same-sex couples on par with
any other prospective foster or adoptive parent. Catholic
Charities object, saying the church doesn't sanction gay and
lesbian relationships. Rather than comply with the laws, bishops
in Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. have shut down
Catholic adoption agencies.
The bishops portray this as an out-and-out war on free
exercise of religion.
But secular and liberal groups say no one's assailing the
freedom to worship, to proselytize -- or even to perform social
services, such as placing needy children in loving homes,
according to religious precepts.
It is only when a religious institution accepts taxpayer
money to do such work that religious freedom must take a back
seat to secular laws, said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional
scholar at Cardozo School of Law.
Courts nationwide have repeatedly ruled that religious
groups must follow the same rules as everyone else when holding
a government contract, Hamilton said. Any institution that can't
in good faith follow those rules shouldn't apply for public
funding, she said.
With regard to contraceptive care, courts in New York and
California have upheld state laws -- similar to the federal
mandate -- that insurance plans, including those sponsored by
religious employers, must cover birth control if they cover
other prescription drugs.
It is unclear whether such nuances will filter into the
public debate over religious freedom and contraceptive coverage.
Both sides say they believe public opinion is firmly in
their corner -- and they're determined to keep it that way with
a steady drumbeat of snappy soundbites.
More than 100 university professors and religious leaders
from different faiths released a letter of protest against the
administration Tuesday that was headlined with a single word:
"Unacceptable." The letter called the Obama administration
"morally obtuse" and blasted the contraceptive coverage mandate
as "a grave violation of religious freedom."
On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union held a
press conference to accuse the bishops of playing politics in
the name of faith. The bishops are promoting "a distorted view
of religious liberty -- one that has no basis in law or the
Constitution," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on
Freedom of Religion and Belief.
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver,; additional reporting
by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by David Storey and Marilyn Thompson)