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Catholic leaders urge opposition to contraception mandate

WATERTOWN — The archbishop of Boston and Catholic lay leaders called on the faithful Monday night to join in the public debate over government policies they say force Catholic institutions to choose between living the tenets of their faith and fulfilling the church’s call to provide services to the needy.

In a live forum broadcast on the CatholicTV network from the Monsignor Francis T. McFarland Television Center in Watertown, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley spoke out against government policies that violate Catholic teachings but do not include a religious exemption.

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Of particular concern is a federal mandate that would require employers to offer health insurance that provides employees access to free birth control and sterilization.

The mandate marks a compromise by the administration of President Obama, which in its health care overhaul first proposed requiring all employers to provide contraception to workers.

But Catholic leaders say the compromise is unacceptable.

The broadcast was part of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, running from June 21, the feast day of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to July 4, using the lead-up to Independence Day to draw attention to policies the bishops say violate the First Amendment rights of Catholics. About 20 invited guests attended the forum.

“Religious liberty is our first freedom, on which all others depend,” O’Malley said. “It’s not a right granted by our government; it’s a right that precedes our government.”

Angela Franks, director of theology programs for the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization in Brighton, said characterizations of the opposition to making contraception more readily available as a “war on women” were “blatantly false.”

The issue, she said, was not the Catholic church trying to force anyone to live by its beliefs but the federal government trying to force the church to violate those beliefs.

“This is a controversy the [Obama] administration chose to create,” Franks said.

Several speakers on the forum panel drew dramatic parallels between modern-day Catholics and historic figures such as Socrates, St. Thomas More, and Christians in ancient Rome who chose to adhere to their beliefs even at the expense of their own lives.

“The age of martyrdom has not passed,” O’Malley said. “We are Catholic and American, and we are proud to be both. We should not be forced to choose between them.”

O’Malley said the church and other religious institutions provide social, educational, and health services in the United States that are provided by the government in other Western democracies.

He drew a parallel between the Obama administration and the government of Cuba, where he said, “Castro used to always brag the churches are always open,” but religious institutions were unable to offer the people anything more than religious instruction. “Religious freedom is not just freedom to worship; it’s freedom to live in a certain way,” O’Malley said.

Interviewed after the broadcast, O’Malley was unable to say whether the federal mandate on contraception might affect any local health or social services offered by church-affiliated institutions.

He said such decisions would not be made at the local level but would be decided by the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The ironic thing is the church has been so supportive of universal health care and suddenly we find ourselves in this quagmire,” O’Malley said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
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