Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2016 / 09:50 am (CNA/EWTN News).- It’s time to end coercion against those who recognize marriage as a union of one man and one woman and see the sexes as male and female, a group of religious and thought leaders has said.

“As Americans, we cherish the freedom to peacefully express and live by our religious, philosophical, and political beliefs — not merely to hold them privately,” said their statement “Preserve Freedom, Reject Coercion.” “We believe that it is imperative that our nation preserve the freedoms to speak, teach, and live out these truths in public life without fear of lawsuits or government censorship,” they continued.

The statement, released Dec. 14, drew more than 75 signatures from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and other leaders. Signers included Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice. They were joined by University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard V. Bradley, Princeton law professor Robert P. George, and writer and Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson.

Their statement affirmed that every individual is “created in the image of God and as such should be treated with love, compassion, and respect.” It also affirmed the belief that people are created male and female, saying that this is the basis of the family and the marital union.

For the statement’s signers, there was concern about laws that establish sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes. “SOGI laws empower the government to use the force of law to silence or punish Americans who seek to exercise their God-given liberty to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions,” the statement continued. It charged that such laws treat “reasonable religious and philosophical beliefs” as discriminatory and create special legal preferences for “categories based on morally significant choices that profoundly affect human relations.”

Under expanding laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, “people of good will can face personal and professional ruin, fines, and even jail time, and organizations face the loss of accreditation, licensing, grants, contracts, and tax-exemption,” the statement declared.

Potential victims of coercion include those who decline to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, like creative professionals, wedding chapels, non-profits, humanitarian ministries, adoption agencies, businesses, religious colleges and churches. Wedding industry professionals have faced the threat of lawsuits for declining to make wedding cakes or conduct photography for same-sex union ceremonies. Adoption agencies have been required to place children with same-sex couples or to close. Religious colleges have faced pressure to enact policies recognizing same-sex relationships or transgender self-identification even if to do so would contradict the colleges’ mission and beliefs.

“In recent years, we have seen in particular how these laws are used by the government in an attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female — people who serve everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but who cannot promote messages, engage in expression, or participate in events that contradict their beliefs or their organization’s guiding values,” the statement said.

Once-uncontroversial Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have in recent years drawn significant opposition from LGBT activists and their allies in politics and business. For the statement’s signers, even narrowly crafted SOGI laws threaten “fundamental freedoms” and purported religious liberty protections sometimes included in such laws are “inherently adequate and unstable.”

The statement rejected SOGI laws at federal, state, and local levels. “We represent diverse efforts to contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors, communities, nation, and world. We remain committed to preserving in law and stewarding in action the foundational freedoms that make possible service of the common good, social harmony, and the flourishing of all,” the signers declared.

Also signing the statement were the presidents of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Aquinas College in Nashville, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and John Paul the Great Catholic University. The university presidents were among professors, theologians, writers, and other leaders like President Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Allan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom; and Jerry A. Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters.