Using words like “dire,” “urgent,” “unprecedented” and “assault,” the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference recently announced the creation of an ad hoc committee to organize a “united and forceful front” against a new tide of government threats to religious freedom. 

“Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider,” New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan wrote to his brother bishops. “If we do not act now, the consequences will be grave.” 

'The administration's failure to change course on this matter will precipitate a national conflict between Church and State of enormous proportions.'

A few days earlier, the conference released a letter Archbishop Dolan had sent to President Barack Obama, urging him to “push the reset button” on his administration’s attempt to undermine the Defense of Marriage Act, and calling it “wrong and unfair” of the administration to equate support of traditional marriage with racism. 

“The administration’s failure to change course on this matter will,” Archbishop Dolan warned, “precipitate a national conflict between Church and State of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions.” 

The conference also disclosed that this was Archbishop Dolan’s second letter to the president. The White House never replied to his first, nor to a letter from the archbishop’s predecessor. 

Why the sudden heightened sense of alarm? Archbishop Dolan gave examples of threats to religious freedom that have just arisen in the last few months: 

  • The federal Department of Health and Human Services has mandated the coverage of contraception and sterilization in private health insurance plans, forcing Church organizations to pay for procedures it holds gravely immoral. 
  • The same department is requiring the bishops’ Migrants and Refugee Services office to offer the “full range of reproductive services” to those it serves with government funding. 
  • The Secretary of State’s USAID appears to be moving toward requiring agencies such as Catholic Relief Services to distribute condoms and other contraceptive services in its HIV prevention programs. 
  • The Department of Justice filed briefs this summer attacking the Defense of Marriage Act, saying bigotry was the only possible motive for supporters of the law. 
  • The Department of Justice filed a brief in a Supreme Court case attacking the “ministerial exception,” which allows religious groups to choose certain employees according to religious criteria (for example, requiring priesthood applicants to be male, or catechists not to be atheists). 

He also pointed to the New York legislature’s recent law legalizing same-sex marriage, and the celebration of gay rights advocates about its limited religious freedom protection. 

Archbishop Dolan is not alone in sounding the alarm. In recent weeks, dozens of Catholic colleges and universities have sent a petition to the federal government; the president of the University of Notre Dame wrote to Obama; the president of The Catholic University of America published an op-ed in the Washington Post; and the head of the Catholic Health Association warned of an “untenable” future for Catholic hospitals. 

Let’s hope their voices count with those who make these decisions. But imagine if even a modest percentage of the nation’s 70 million Catholics also spoke up. Visit to insist — respectfully and firmly — on protection for the religious rights of believers.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.