Defending religious liberty was a top priority in 2012 for the U.S. Catholic bishops, who repeatedly spoke out against threats to its existence. It will likely continue that way in 2013.Much as they did in 2011, the bishops spoke out consistently against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate requiring most religious employers to provide free coverage of artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs in their insurance plans, even if they are morally opposed to such coverage.The mandate, put in place in August 2011, has a narrow exemption for employers who object to providing these services on religious grounds, namely if they serve or hire people primarily of their own faith. It does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to providing such coverage.The HHS issue took center stage early in 2012 when the Obama administration announced Feb. 10 that it would leave the definition of an exempt religious entity but would shift the costs of contraceptives from the policyholders to the insurers. But the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders rejected the change, saying it failed to ensure that Catholic individuals and institutions would not have to pay for services that they consider immoral, because many dioceses and other Catholic entities are self-insured.At a congressional hearing, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said the ongoing debate over the mandate demonstrated a need for enacting conscience protection into federal law.The bishops have repeatedly said the mandate is a restriction on religious liberty because the requirement violates church teaching.They echoed this concern throughout the year and urged lay Catholics to similarly speak out against infringements to religious freedom. Catholics around the country responded by participating in Masses, devotions, holy hours, educational presentations and rallies during the June 21 to July 4 campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called a "Fortnight for Freedom."In April, the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom issued a 12-page statement on threats to religious liberty which highlighted the HHS mandate but also included other examples. Among them: —Immigration laws that "forbid what the government deems 'harboring' of undocumented immigrants." —Government actions in Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois that have "driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services," because the agencies would not place children with same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples. Prior to the fortnight events, Archbishop Lori said the USCCB planned to closely monitor the lawsuits filed May 21 by 43 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions challenging the HHS mandate."Even if we win the HHS lawsuits, the larger cultural issue of preserving religious liberty and the place of religion in our culture is something we're going to have to engage in for many years to come," he added.He echoed this sentiment Nov. 12 in a report during the fall general assembly of the USCCB."Whatever setbacks or challenges in the efforts to defend religious liberty we may be experiencing, we're going to stay the course," he said.At their annual meeting in Baltimore, the bishops approved a pastoral strategy specifically aimed at addressing critical life, marriage and religious liberty concerns. The campaign, set to begin after Christmas, includes monthly eucharistic holy hours in cathedrals and parishes, daily family rosary, special Prayers of the Faithful at all Masses, fasting and abstinence on Fridays, and the second observance of a Fortnight for Freedom.Throughout the year, theologians and Catholic leaders discussed the importance of religious freedom and the issue also was addressed by Vatican officials.In a Nov. 4 speech at the University of Notre Dame, the apostolic nuncio to the United States said threats to religious liberty in the United States may not be as obvious as the religious persecution in other countries, but he stressed that the "not so obvious" threat often "appears inconsequential or seems benign but in fact is not."Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano specifically mentioned the contraceptive mandate as a threat to religious liberty but added that it was just one example of attacks on "authentic and legitimate exercise of religious freedom" in the United States.The archbishop said religious liberty has been threatened when Catholic Charities agencies are "being removed from vital social services that advance the common good because the upright people administering these programs would not adopt policies or engage in procedures that violate fundamental moral principles of the Catholic faith."Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, Italy, a prominent theologian, said in a Dec. 6 prayer service at the Vatican that most modern democracies have ended up hurting religious freedom in their effort to be "neutral" toward their citizens' diverse beliefs.He said the "classic problem of the moral assessment of laws has increasingly turned into a problem of religious liberty," which he said was explicitly evident in the USCCB's battle against the HHS contraception mandate.In governments' attempt to protect everyone's religious freedom by being "neutral" or "indifferent" to religion, a well-intentioned secularity "has ended up becoming a model that is ill-disposed toward the religious dimension," he said.Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 13 email that the heightened focus on religious liberty by the U.S. bishops and the Vatican is "having an impact, especially on American Catholics," whom he described as becoming more aware of "an emergent danger to religious communities in the United States."He noted that with the federal contraceptive mandate the government is "taking a position that is highly unusual in American history" by using its authority to "require religious individuals and communities to abandon their most sacred beliefs.""Unless the administration's position changes," he said, "Catholic hospitals, colleges, charities and private businesses will either have to support — through their health care plans — the provision of contraceptive, abortifacient and sterilization services, secularize, or get out of business. That coercive policy would not only suppress the rights of individuals and communities in a way that is highly un-American, but would undermine another pillar of our democracy — civil society."—CNS{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0104/liberty/{/gallery}