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Bishops Seek to Redefine Religious Liberty

April 12, 2012

The latest salvo from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) marks a new battle line in their campaign to deny religious freedom to all Americans. Published today, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” a document outlining the bishops’ campaign, was developed by the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, issued the following statement:

“The USCCB seems to think that it has the right to redefine religious liberty. It does not. The US Constitution is very clear that religious liberty includes freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, despite the best efforts of the bishops to pretend otherwise. A well-publicized statement from Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Easter week acknowledged that the Catholic hierarchy has a lot of work to do in educating Catholics about the bishops’ teachings. This new document from the bishops is an odd way to start—by seeking to insert themselves into political debates that take on extra importance in an election year. The principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience are foundational ones for Catholics, as indeed they are for all Americans. And they have been codified in the Constitution to protect against religious intrusions in our lives, such as the ones the bishops are now trying to impose.

“The bishops have been pursuing the religious liberty theme for some time now. They set up their ad hoc committee in 2011 and convinced the pope that this was a major issue in American politics when they met with him in January. Their strategy is twofold: they have sought to redefine religious liberty so that it is limited to policies and issues that they support, and in order for them to get their way, they are happy to deny the religious liberty of those who wish to be free from the dictates of the US bishops.

“The bishops’ idea of ‘freedom’ means that employers, and not medical professionals, should choose which safe, preventive, legal medications and procedures their employees can access—and which they can’t. This means, for example, that without shouldering unreasonable expense, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women would not be able to use family planning to decide when and whether to become pregnant or even to protect their health.

“The bishops’ idea of ‘religious liberty’ proposes that one narrow interpretation of one religious tradition should be allowed to run roughshod over the religious beliefs of every single American. The ruling from the Department of Health and Human Services on contraception addresses a pressing public health issue: protecting women’s health. The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives. This is a strange definition of the ‘common good’—a central Catholic belief. The bishops’ concept of religious liberty means they would get the liberty to deny ours.

“The bishops’ statement argues that their consciences are being violated by the government. This misuse of the term conscience may be their most disingenuous deviation from common understanding. Catholics believe that each person has a conscience, an inviolable and personal inner core that informs our decision making and compels each of us to act in the way that we have decided is morally correct. Whether in religion or in public life, we all understand the notion of conscientious objection—sometimes people of good will cannot, in good conscience, just ‘follow orders.’ But, in the face of these widely accepted principles, the bishops are trying to find a work-around. They are asserting that a hospital, a university and an HMO all have a conscience that can be offended by offering the healthcare coverage guaranteed to all American employees. In the bishops’ view, their consciences, or even a wholly imaginary institutional conscience, trump that of the individual, and they want special exemptions written into law to prove it.

“Religious freedom is an expansive rather than a restrictive idea. It has two sides, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot believe or practice, but rather about respecting an individual’s right to follow his or her own conscience in religious beliefs and practices, as well as in moral decision making. The protections we put in place to preserve religious freedom do not—and should not—be considered to permit religious institutions or individuals to obstruct or coerce the exercise of another’s conscience.”