The chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty says that expanded religious liberty protections in the federal contraception mandate are a “victory for the First Amendment, and a victory for all Americans, even those who don’t agree with the Church’s” teaching on contraception.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced revisions to the contraception mandate provisions of the Affordable Care Act Oct. 6, considerably expanding exemptions for religious groups and others with moral or ethical objections to providing contraception in employee health plans.
In comments to CNA, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who has led the bishops’ religious liberty efforts since the formation of the committee in 2011, said the announcement was “very welcome news.”
“I think it restores a balance that was lacking,” the archbishop said. “It permits us to do our ministries” without violating Catholic moral principles, he added. The U.S. bishop’s conference has consistently opposed the contraception mandate since it was announced in 2011.
While Lori praised expanded religious liberty protections, he told CNA that “as important as the announcement is, it’s a regulation that could be changed by a future administration.” He said the bishops would continue to work for “a more permanent solution” to the ethical challenges posed by the contraception mandate. “We’ll also see more challenges to our religious liberty,” Lori told CNA. “We’ll continue seeking a more robust understanding and implementation of RFRA laws.”
RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is a federal statute limiting the government’s ability to “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion. Since being signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, 21 states have enacted similar provisions. Lori told CNA that “in addition to the various challenges we face on religious liberty at the federal and local levels, the biggest thing we need to do is effectively catechize, evangelize, and teach about religious freedom. That is job number one” for the bishops’ religious liberty committee, he explained.
“On the one hand, we face specific legal challenges,” he said. “On the other hand, we face a society losing sight of the beauty, goodness, and dignity of religious liberty.” The archbishop said that Americans risk “frittering away” freedom of religion if they do not actively work to protect it. “Will we have a just society without protecting religious liberty,” he asked.
In June, the U.S. bishops voted to permanently establish the religious liberty committee within the structure of the bishops’ conference. It had previously been an ad hoc committee, which, by conference rules, could only remain active over a defined period of time. “The bishops recognized that is important for us to teach, catechize, and address these issues,” Lori said. “I was very gratified by that decision.”
Lori also said that domestic religious liberty challenges should raise awareness of religious persecution around the world. “It’s said that nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives under some restriction of their religious freedom. That ought to be sobering for us in the West,” he said. “We need to be in great solidarity of prayer with those suffering religious persecution,” he said, adding hope that American Catholics would support initiatives promoting religious liberty internationally.
The archbishop explained that protecting religious liberty domestically could itself have global effect. “By protecting our freedom, and keeping the flame of freedom burning brightly, we serve as a sign of hope” for persecuted religious believers around the globe, he said.