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Catholic Bishops: Religious Liberty Under Attack in US

The Roman Catholic Church says religious liberty is under attack in the United States.  The allegation is part of an effort by U.S. bishops against reproductive health care policies and government funding priorities that contradict church doctrine.

Bishop William Lori led the campaign at the fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 14-16.

"For some time now, we have viewed with growing alarm the ongoing erosion of religious liberty in our land," Lori told the hundreds of bishops assembled on the opening day of the meeting.

Lori is chairman of the conference's new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.  It was created after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), canceled a $2.5 million contract with Migration and Refugee Services, a Catholic organization that helps victims of sex trafficking.  It was widely reported that the contract was canceled because the group refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptives or abortions, in keeping with Roman Catholic teaching.

Lori sees the funding decision as part of a broader trend in America to limit religious liberty.  "There is a sort of aggressive secularism in culture and law that is tending to hem it in, to marginalize it, to make less accommodation for people of faith and institutions of faith," he says.

Bishops say their faith is also being threatened by same-sex marriage laws enacted in at least a half-dozen U.S. states.  

But they are fighting back.  They are lobbying to change President Barack Obama's health care reform to prevent millions of people working for Catholic institutions - including hospitals, schools and universities - from receiving free contraceptives as mandated by the new health care insurance law.  The bishops say the exemption that exists now - only Catholics working in diocesan offices do not have to be covered - is too narrow.

"We don't think that HHS or any government agency should be telling us what our mission is," Lori adds.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in the United States, and it has a long history here.  So for the bishops to be saying that their religious liberty is being infringed, is no small matter.  But critics say it is the bishops who are the danger.

Last year, the bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas Olmsted, excommunicated a nun for allowing a mother with health problems to have an abortion.  Sister Margaret McBride worked at a hospital where doctors say the condition would have killed the mother and the baby, if the pregnancy was brought to term.

"This is bishops gone crazy.  This is bishops gone wild," says Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.  "The idea that bishops are going to dictate what is happening in American hospitals and in health care systems is really a cause of great concern."

O'Brien recently testified before a congressional committee that 98 percent of Catholic women ignore the church's ban on contraceptives.

"The hierarchy, having failed to convince Catholics in the pews, is now using legislation and opt-out of certain services in order to deny people, Catholics and non-Catholics, the services they need," says O'Brien.

Bishops say that estimate is high.  But they do not dispute that they have a lot of "teaching" to do.

On a harbor promenade a short walk from the bishops' meeting, several Catholic women disagreed with the all-male assembly's view on contraception.

"I think that it is necessary," said Katie Rourke, 23.  "Teen pregnancy is definitely on the rise, and I have seen it happen to my friends.  People my age have two, three kids."

Jennie Marshiano, whose 5-year-old son clung to her side as she spoke, said that if women were allowed to be priests, birth control would likely not be an issue.  "We would not even be discussing it," she said.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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