Catholic bishops launch religious liberty campaign

Washington, USA - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a two-week crusade against what it calls the federal government's violations of its religious liberty.

The campaign, known as the Fortnight for Freedom, is about “prayer, education and action,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, in an interview Sunday with CNN.

The campaign, to conclude on Independence Day, has drawn support from Catholic parishioners across the nation, who have held religious rallies, prayer vigils and weekly mass to raise awareness for a new health care mandate the church opposes.

“We’re here to pray. We’re here to educate about freedom. We started this campaign to say religious liberty is eroding,” said Wuerl before a rally Sunday afternoon at George Washington University in Washington.

According to the Catholic bishops' website, the days leading up to July Fourth will “celebrate a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power,” including Sir Thomas More, John the Baptist and Saints Peter and Paul.

In recent months, the U.S. Catholic Church has expressed concern over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' proposed contraception mandate, which requires insurance companies for Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide free contraceptive coverage – including, the church says, sterilizations and drugs that could cause abortions – to employees, in violation of Catholic teachings on social issues.

The White House has pushed back against accusations it is curtailing religious liberty. The administration is proposing an exemption for the mandate for churches, but the plan recently lost support from the Catholic Health Association, once the administration's most powerful Catholic ally on the mandate.

Wuerl said the church campaign is not about politics or the controversial mandate. Instead, he said it’s about the government’s attempt to infringe on religious liberty.

In an online letter last month to congregants, Wuerl said the scope of the mandate's exception is so narrow that not even Mother Teresa would have qualified.

“The First Amendment enshrines in our nation's Constitution the principle that religious organizations must be able to practice their faith free from government interference,” he said in a letter posted on the Diocese of Washington’s website.

He added, “To be clear, that is the message that the HHS mandate conveys: our beliefs are not welcome.”

Joseph Palacios, director of the Catholics for Equality Foundation, said the church can't play the victimhood card because it receives substantial funds from federal and state governments.

“If the bishops want exemption from the law,” said Palacios in a recent statement, “then they should stop receiving taxpayer funding."

Wuerl, however, insists the money is not a gift – rather, it is an exchange of services between the Catholic Church and the federal government, so there should be no strings attached.

“The government comes to us and says, ‘We would like you to (care) for the homeless (and run) a shelter,’ ” Wuerl said.

“(But) we’re not living off the dole – we’re being paid for something we do," Wuerl said. "But this new mandate goes far beyond that. We don’t get money for our schools. We don’t get money for most of the things that go on in our social service ministries and parishes. We don’t get money for a lot of what we, as Catholic churches, do.”

Wuerl said the church can’t do these good works so long as the contraception mandate includes exemptions only for churches, as opposed to all religiously affiliated institutions.

For the remainder of the campaign, dioceses across the country will focus on what speaks to their individual community members most, said Chieko Noguchi Scheve, director of media and public relations for the Archdiocese of Washington.

The Diocese of Austin, Texas, for example, has encouraged all Catholics to pray with their rosary beads for the two-week period, while the Diocese of Las Vegas has posted a fill-in-the-blank letter on its website in the hope that parishioners will share their displeasure about the mandate with their U.S. representatives.

At the Sunday rally, Wuerl stood before a crowd of nearly 2,000, according to a diocese estimate, encouraging audience members that although there was a time to be on their knees – namely, “in the presence of the Lord" – this was not one of them.

Wuerl said it was a time for Catholics to stand up for who they are.

“Today we’re simply reminded as we look back over our history and we look back over our freedom, that there are some things worth standing for,” he told the audience inside George Washington University’s Charles E. Smith Center.

“There’s some things worth getting up for, and religious liberty is one of them," he said. "My brothers and sisters, we simply need to stand.”