Bishops say: Let agencies stay faithful as they work
Share with others:
WASHINGTON -- The nation's Catholic bishops say that religious liberty in the United States is under attack from secularists who see almost any accommodation for religious or moral beliefs as government establishment of religion. They cite a series of government decisions that have forced Catholic social service agencies out of certain areas of relief work.
"While recognizing religious freedom as an individual right, we see that religious freedom belongs also to churches and religious institutions comprised of citizens who are believers and who seek, not to create a theocracy, but rather to be leaven and light to their culture," said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops' new Committee on Religious Liberty.
"We look for a robust understanding of religious liberty extended to all faiths, an understanding that envisions not only the importance of being able to worship freely but also to bring into the public square truths and values that flow from faith and reason, expressed in works of education, health care, social services and charity."
The new committee is intended to help the bishops have a clear public voice on these issues, and help them join with other religious groups to address the issues.
Among the problems the bishops cited:
• The federal Department of Health and Human Services did not renew contracts that the Catholic Migration and Refugee Services had to care for refugees and victims of human trafficking because the church agency would not provide access to abortion or contraceptives. According to a report in the Washington Post, this decision was made over the objections of staff experts at Health and Human Services, who said the Catholic agency was far more qualified than the organizations that replaced it. The move followed a lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union argued that by funding an agency that would not provide these services, the government was imposing sectarian religious beliefs.
• An Alabama anti-immigration law criminalized social services that religious agencies provide to undocumented workers.
• A pending federal mandate that would require Catholic agencies to include contraceptives and sterilization in any health care coverage. Some institutions say they may have to drop health insurance entirely.
• State laws requiring adoption and foster placement agencies to accept same-sex couples as prospective parents, with no exemption for religious conviction. Catholic agencies in several states have stopped doing adoption and foster placement.
There is nothing new about religious exemptions, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh said in an interview. He cited Mennonites who were exempt from military service and the Amish exemptions from compulsory school laws and Social Security.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, met with President Barack Obama on Nov. 8. While he wouldn't discuss specifics, his account was upbeat.
Advocates of the policies that the bishops object to argue that the church has no right to deprive other people of their right to abortion, contraception or adoption. Archbishop Dolan responded that this conflict isn't about other people's right to do certain things, but about the church's right not to pay for or engage in what it regards as sin.
"What we're talking about isn't their rights, but ours," he said.
On gay marriage, he said that though the church can't redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, it can work with gay couples to ensure at least some of the legal rights they are concerned about.
On the insurance issue, Bishop Lori said people who apply to work for the Catholic Church do so understanding that it won't pay for certain services. Asked if the bishops were arguing that they had a right to receive federal funding for social services, he said they only wanted an even playing field.
"What we are saying is that social service agencies like Catholic Relief Services and Migration and Refugee Services, which have a superb record of doing massive amounts of relief, ... should not be at a disadvantage in competing for contracts because we bring certain convictions to the table," he said.
First Published November 15, 2011 12:00 am