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Congressional Hearing on Religious Liberty Misled by Bishop’s Testimony

October 26, 2011

A Congressional Subcommittee hearing today on the state of religious liberty in the US heard from Bishop William Lori, the chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, who gave testimony on behalf of the bishops’ conference. The bishop’s testimony intimated that some Catholic teachings on religious liberty should be incorporated into American law. His proposals, however, would disproportionately benefit Catholic organizations and institutions, while trampling on the religious liberty of every citizen and having a chilling effect on the ability of Americans to receive basic preventive healthcare in publicly-funded Catholic hospitals or through their health insurance.

In a written statement to the committee Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, presented the authentic Catholic position on religious freedom.

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.

This tenet is the basis of the social contract that religious organizations like Catholic hospitals and charities are woven into by virtue of the tax benefits and other public funds they receive. One would expect that these organizations would play by the rules of society at large, rather than require the rest of society to play by their rules. In his testimony, Bishop Lori made the misleading claim that, should the refusal clause being considered in recently released rules implementing the Affordable Care Act pass as is, or be expanded by the Obama administration, only parish housekeepers would be affected. The reality is that a far greater number of workers would be affected by the exemption. By his calculation, however, it is acceptable to skimp on the rights of some because of the good that Catholic charitable organizations provide others. These terms are unacceptable, both to Catholics and to the American people.

Mr. O’Brien’s statement continues:

“Today, the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women in the US who have used a form of contraception banned by the Vatican have exercised their religious freedom and followed their consciences in making the decision to use contraception. Thus, they are in line with the totality of Catholic teachings, if not with the views of the hierarchy. However, having failed to convince Catholics in the pews, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is trying to impose its religious views by fiat, and in the process impeding the religious freedom of millions of Americans, taking reproductive healthcare options away from everybody.

Federal dollars should be used for the common good and to enable people to exercise their conscience-based healthcare decisions. The original vision of our founding fathers on religious freedom would have it no other way.”

Jon O’Brien’s full statement may be read here.