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LORI-LIBERTY (UPDATED) Oct-27-2011 (930 words) With photos posted Oct. 26. xxxn

Bishop addresses House panel on 'grave threats to religious liberty'


Bishop William C. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., testifies before a House Judiciary subcommittee in Washington Oct. 26. (CNS/Joshua Roberts)

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Recent "grave threats to religious liberty" serve as "grim validations" of the U.S. bishops' decision last June to create a special committee to address those issues, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., told a House subcommittee Oct. 26.

Bishop Lori, appointed in late September to chair the bishops' new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence require government "to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment."

But in recent days, he said, "the bishops of the United States have watched with increasing alarm as this great national legacy of religious liberty, so profoundly in harmony with our own teachings, has been subject to ever more frequent assault and ever more rapid erosion."

In written testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Bishop Lori called for "corrective action by Congress" to address six areas of particular concern:

-- Regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in August that would mandate coverage of contraception and sterilization in most private health insurance plans.

-- A new requirement by HHS that would require the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services to agree to provide the "full range" of reproductive services, including abortion and contraception, to human trafficking victims and unaccompanied refugee minors.

-- The U.S. Agency for International Development's requirement that Catholic Relief Services and other contractors include condom distribution in their HIV prevention activities and provide contraception in a range of international relief and development programs.

-- The Department of Justice's actions to mischaracterize the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which states that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, as an act of bigotry and to actively attack its constitutionality.

-- The Justice Department's efforts to undermine the "ministerial exception" that exempts religious institutions from some civil laws when it comes to hiring and firing.

-- State actions on same-sex marriage that have resulted in Catholic Charities agencies in Illinois being "driven out of the adoption and foster care business" and some county clerks in New York state facing legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, repeatedly questioned Bishop Lori about whether he saw a difference between state employees who said in the civil rights era that they oppose interracial marriage and those who oppose same-sex marriage today, when both decline to follow state laws because of their religious beliefs.

"No, I would believe marriage between two people of different races is an entirely different matter," he replied. "Marriage is a unique relationship. It takes a man and a woman."

The bishop said he found it "troubling" when opposition to same-sex marriage "is portrayed as bigotry" and when some try to draw a "parallel between racial discrimination and (opposition to) same-gender marriage."

Bishop Lori urged members of the House of Representatives to pass three bills that would "go a long way toward guaranteeing religious liberty and freedom of conscience for religious employers, health insurers and health care providers." They are the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179).

He also called for a congressional hearing or other investigation into "the illegal conditions that HHS and USAID are placing on religious providers of human services." He said new statutes might be necessary "to create new conscience protections, but more likely to create private rights of action for those whose rights under the existing protections have been violated."

"Unfortunately, the authority to enforce the applicable conscience protections now lies principally with the federal agencies that may be violating the protections," Bishop Lori said.

He urged House members to "resist legislative efforts to repeal" the Defense of Marriage Act, including the Respect for Marriage Act (H.R. 1116).

"The religious freedom threats to marriage at the state level may fall beyond the scope of authority of Congress to control -- except to the extent that state adoption and foster care services are federally funded," he said.

Other witnesses at the hearing on "The State of Religious Liberty in the United States" were the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Colby M. May, director and senior counsel of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice.

May said court decisions "have restricted religious freedoms on public college and school campuses" and in other arenas.

"In light of ever-changing discrimination laws and harassment policies, religious people often face a troublesome choice: violate deeply held religious beliefs or receive punishment from state or local officials," he said.

Rev. Lynn disagreed with the other witnesses, however, saying that "the most imminent and egregious threats to religious freedom today are those that are suffered by members of minority faiths and nonbelievers in this country."

In "one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world," he said, "adherents to less popular faiths and nonbelievers ... face religious coercion and overt religious employment discrimination."

What the other witnesses "see as threats can easily be characterized as attempts to obtain sweeping exemptions that harm the rights of innocent third parties; attempts to seek privileges reserved for religious entities even though they are engaged in commerce, acting as a traditional business or serving as a government provider of services; and attempts to obtain religious exemptions even when such exemptions could deny others their fundamental rights, health or even life," Rev. Lynn said.

- - -

Contributing to this story was Chaz Muth.

END


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