The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston is joining dioceses across the United States this week in an unprecedented campaign-style drive to protest what US bishops consider to be escalating attacks by government on religious liberty.
But the hierarchy’s effort has upset left-leaning Catholic groups, which say the bishops’ concerns are overblown and that their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is a partisan effort meant to influence the presidential election.
The bishops’ most urgent concern is the US Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring employers to offer health insurance that provides employees with access to free birth control and sterilization. The bishops say it would force Catholic hospitals, universities and service agencies to violate church doctrine.
But the hierarchy is also troubled by other instances in which Catholic organizations have been denied religious exemptions from laws that conflict with church teachings. For example, many Catholic agencies, including Catholic Charities in Boston, have stopped offering adoption services altogether rather than comply with state antidiscrimination laws and place children with gay couples.
And a Massachusetts federal judge recently ruled that a Catholic organization with a US contract for assisting human-trafficking victims could not bar subcontractors from providing abortion and contraception referrals.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, in an interview in Atlanta at the US bishops’ meeting this month, said he was profoundly concerned that religious freedom is being eroded and “if we don’t do something, it’s going to get worse.”
“Conscience clauses are constantly being called into question, and diminished, and seen as something that is unprofessional or antiquated,” he said.
But Steve Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats, called Fortnight for Freedom “an imprudent and divisive action that is based on contrived, grossly overstated arguments.”
It is, he said, the latest evidence that the Catholic hierarchy has become increasingly political, and Republican, over the last generation — especially the last few election cycles.
“We have a new, conservative group of bishops that have been appointed for their religious orthodoxy going back to the start of the papacy of John Paul II, and that has coincided with this kind of asymmetrical political divide where the Republican Party has become much more ideological and much more conservative,” said Krueger.
The new insurance rule, part of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, provides an exemption for houses of worship and other religious entities whose primary purpose is the inculcation of faith, and which mostly hire and serve people of their own religion.
But it does not exempt institutions such as Catholic hospitals, universities, and social service agencies, which employ a diverse workforce and serve the broader public.
The Obama administration had originally proposed requiring all employers to cover contraception. But after Catholic bishops and others protested, the White House offered a compromise. Religiously affiliated employers that object to providing contraception coverage will not have to offer it; instead, their insurance carriers must provide free access to birth control to women directly.
The bishops, however, said this was unacceptable because Catholic institutions’ premiums would still indirectly subsidize birth control. In May, 43 dioceses and Catholic agencies and institutions filed a lawsuit challenging the requirement.
Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says individuals can still exercise their religious freedom by deciding not to use birth control. Institutions that serve the broader public, she said, must follow the same laws as everybody else.
“Real religious freedom gives everybody the right to make personal decisions based on those beliefs, but it’s not a path to discriminate,” she said.
But Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said he thinks the bishops have a genuine concern.
Religious liberty, he said, has deteriorated since 1990, when the US Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith that Native Americans who ingested peyote in religous ceremonies had no constitutional right to an exemption from the state of Oregon’s drug laws. The decision — written by Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic — said that it is up to the political process to provide accommodations for religious groups when their practices clash with generally applicable laws.
“Free exercise of religion, I think it’s fair to say, lost a lot of ground, and there has been a scramble to catch up ever since,” said Haynes.
In the bishops’ view, he said, the government wants to force Catholic institutions to do something that goes against basic tenets of the Catholic faith.
But he said that the bishops would be better off centering their campaign on the general decline of religious accommodation in the United States for people of all faiths — including, for example, Muslims — rather than on the narrow issue of the contraception mandate.
“It doesn’t work if we just bang the drum for own group and then are silent when others are discriminated against,” he said.
Articulating positions on political matters important to Catholics is nothing new for the US bishops, who regularly issue statements on a wide range of topics, from nuclear proliferation to assisted suicide.
But Fortnight for Freedom stands out for its use of campaign-style methods in a compressed timeframe, playing against the backdrop of a presidential campaign. And although the bishops have repeatedly stressed the effort is not partisan, their message — that liberty is under attack — is similar to themes stressed by the Republican Party and Tea Party activists this year.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is distributing 1,000 yard signs with the message “Preserve Religious Freedom”; the Diocese of Brooklyn plans to kick off a nonpartisan voter registration drive. The Diocese of Richmond is collecting e-mail addresses for the Virginia Catholic Conference lobbying network.
O’Malley will hold a televised town hall meeting Monday on religious liberty with a discussion panel that includes John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America. The event, heavily publicized in parish bulletins this month, will air on CatholicTV and also will be broadcast via the Internet to a live audience at a parish hall in Anchorage.
The archdiocese has supplied parishes with special prayers to be offered during Masses, and it is encouraging Catholics to learn about the issue online and share their concerns in letters to the editor and conversations with friends and neighbors.
O’Malley acknowledged that the campaign could seem partisan, but he said the bishops were trying to mitigate that.
“We have tried to communicate to our staff the importance of remaining on-issue and to avoid allowing ourselves to be manipulated by the forces that are out there,” O’Malley said, adding that the timing was dictated by the need to respond to the Obama administration’s mandate.
Catholic Democrats says the bishops’ attention to religious liberty comes at the expense of problems such as poverty, which the group views as more urgent.
In Atlanta earlier this month, the US bishops voted to draft a message titled “Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” but they spent far more time on religious liberty.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.