Ecumenical effort to fight HHS mandate

On July 2, more than 100 prominent religious leaders and scholars from the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and other faiths and organizations continued the fight for religious liberty by signing an open letter titled "Standing Together for Religious Freedom." This follows the Obama administration's release last Friday of the final rules from the Department of Health and Human Services on contraception coverage and religious organizations.

Although these leaders hold differing views on the issues of contraception, sterilization and abortion, they recognize the violation of religious liberty and conscience rights by the mandate. The letter calls upon the federal government to cease the "breach of universal principles affirmed and protected by the U.S. Constitution" and to expand conscience rights "beyond the walls of our churches" for all Americans.

From the letter:

"Many of the signatories on this letter do not hold doctrinal objections to the use of contraception. Yet we stand united in protest to this mandate, recognizing the encroachment on the conscience of our fellow citizens. Whether or not we agree with the particular conscientious objection is beside the point. HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives. …

[W]e call upon HHS to, at a minimum, expand conscience protections under the mandate to cover any organization or individual that has religious or moral objections to covering, providing or enabling access to the mandated drugs and services. Further, because HHS claims to be acting on authority granted it by Congress, we ask Congress to consider how it might prevent such offenses from occurring in the future. Any policy that falls short of affirming full religious freedom protection for all Americans is unacceptable."

Faiths and organizations represented in the letter include the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church of America, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, Human Rights Law Firm, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Focus on the Family, Franciscan University of Steubenville and many more.

At a press conference, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said, "As the Catholic bishops have said from the beginning, the underlying issue with the HHS mandate is not about any specific teaching; in fact, other signatories on the letter do not share our view on contraception and probably disagree with us in many other ways, but they understand the core religious freedom issue at stake here.

"Sadly, the mandate divides our Church into three separate camps: houses of worship on the one hand, accommodated religious institutions on the other, and, in addition to that, for-profit entities run by religious believers," Archbishop Lori said. "We in the Catholic Church have never seen such a distinction between what we do within the walls of a church and how we serve our neighbors. The faith by which we worship on Sunday is the very same faith by which we act in the world the other six days of the week."

Russell D. Moore, Ph.D., president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also said: "We support freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all persons. One of the reasons we oppose this sort of incursion on the free exercise of religion is that we want neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others. We do not ask the government to bless our doctrinal convictions or to impose them others. We simply ask the government not to set itself up as lord of our consciences."

Archbishop Lori also reaffirmed that the USCCB currently is reviewing the 110-page document and will release a more substantive statement following the analysis.

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Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.