Even some Catholics might wince when the newly named archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, asserts, in his inaugural interview with OSV Newsweekly this issue, that the most pressing issue in the public square these days is erosion of religious freedom (see article).

This is the land of the free and the brave, after all, certainly among the healthiest and most stable democracies on the planet. Most of our neighborhoods are planted with churches, temples and houses of worship of every type, from mainstream to eccentric. Study after study shows that Americans are, on the whole, a lot more religious than most other citizens of democracies and have achieved a high degree of comfort with pluralism and multiculturalism.

So where’s the threat?

A glimmer — and realistically much more — appeared last month with the recommendation by a medical group that the federal government mandate free contraception — including those forms that cause chemical abortions — sterilization and “education and counseling” to promote these services among all women of “reproductive capacity.”

If that recommendation is accepted by the Department for Health and Human Services, which solicited the group’s input, it means that virtually all health insurers, public and private — including Our Sunday Visitor’s — would be required to pay for contraception, chemical abortion and sterilization; and all employees would be required, through their contributions to health insurance, to do the same. (For more, see the analysis article)

The proponents of such a plan claim to have the best of intentions: helping women. But that motivation does not absolve them from the consequences of their ideological impulse. First, it treats pregnancy and fertility as diseases. Second, it ignores a growing body of research about the negative impact of contraception and abortion on women’s health. Third, it dismisses the deeply held moral convictions of many Americans who find abortion — the direct killing of an innocent human being, even with abortifacient drugs at the earliest stages of life — repugnant. Fourth, it seeks to do violence to those moral beliefs by imposition of a mandate, something Americans have shown themselves prickly about ever since July 4, 1776. No less a luminary than Thomas Jefferson wrote: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

The head of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, issued a statement protesting the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation.

He urged the Department of Health and Human Services “to focus on the need of all Americans, including immigrants and the poor, for basic life-saving health coverage — not on mandating controversial elective practices in ways that undermine the good of women and children, the consciences of employers, employees and health plan providers, and the common good.”

He also wrote to all members of Congress to urge their co-sponsorship and support of the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” a bipartisan amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

We urge our readers — and, indeed, every American who values the principles upon which this country was founded — to contact their federal representatives to demand protection for conscience rights.