Pope Francis’ defense of religious freedom at the White House on Wednesday was “hugely significant,” said the chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. “He said that we should not be forced to give up or compromise our beliefs,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said of Pope Francis’ remarks at the official welcoming ceremony for his U.S. visit at the White House. The Pope also “supported, really, the efforts of the U.S. Bishops and their efforts to defend religious freedom,” he added. “I think any time that the Pope brings up a subject on the stage like the White House, it’s hugely significant,” the archbishop told CNA. Pope Francis and President Obama both addressed each other Wednesday morning on the South Lawn of the White House in front of an estimated 20,000 people. The Pope called religious freedom “one of America’s most precious possessions.” The Pope also spoke of the need to care for the environment and address the threat of climate change. Later on Wednesday, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor community in Washington, D.C. as a “sign of support” for them in their battle against the contraception mandate in court, as the director of the Holy See’s press office Fr. Fredrico Lombardi described the visit. The sisters had sued the Obama administration over its 2012 mandate that all employers provide employees insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause abortions. Despite the administration issuing revised rules as an “accommodation” for objecting employers, the sisters maintain the new rules still forced them to violate their religious beliefs and participate in actions they believe to be wrong. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the sisters were not exempt from the mandate. The sisters do not qualify for a religious exemption under the mandate, not being directly affiliated with a “house of worship.” If they do not comply with the mandate, they could be subject to $2.5 million in fines per year. They have received a temporary reprieve from the mandate while the U.S. Supreme Court considers taking up their case. Archbishop Lori acknowledged the Pope’s visit to their community in D.C. as a deep nod toward the cause of religious freedom. Pope Francis “affirmed them not so much by what he said, but certainly by his presence,” the archbishop said. The Pope’s words and visit should galvanize Americans to rediscover — and put into practice — religious freedom, he insisted. Most importantly, Catholics can uphold this freedom by practicing their faith. “At the end of the day, what will defend religious liberty the best is evangelization,” he said, “if people are really practicing their faith, professing it, worshipping, but also putting it into practice by serving others and by supporting the ministries of the Church that serve the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable, and our schools, all of which the Pope has also praised in these days.” Americans can also educate themselves on what is one of our core freedoms. “The Declaration on Religious Liberty is 50 years old this year, a great opportunity for us to go back and just read it,” Archbishop Lori said.
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