Archbishop Dolan: Government Eroding Religious Liberty

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U.S. Roman Catholic bishops this week vowed to defend their religious liberty in the face of growing acceptance of gay marriage and what they called attempts by secularists to marginalize faith.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are reacting to a "drive to neuter religion" and "push religion back into the sacristy."

"That's a cultural issue that the church has been concerned about forever, not just in the United States," Dolan said.

Religious freedom was the main focus at the Catholic Bishops annual General Assembly taking place in Baltimore, Md.

The bishops have been pressing the U.S. Health and Human Services Department for a broader religious exception to part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul that mandates private insurers pay for contraception. The government agency also recently decided not to renew a contract held since 2006 by the bishops' refugee services office to help victims of human trafficking.

"We should not be obliged to provide services or other initiatives that are contrary to our conscience," said Bishop William Lori, of Bridgeport, Conn. "We should not be at a disadvantage competing for contracts because we bring certain convictions to the table."

But others question how the bishops define “religious liberty.”

Prof. Terrence Tilley, chair of the Theology Department at Fordham University, told WNYC that Washington has the right to attach strings.

“All the bishops have to do to recover their ‘religious liberty’ is to stop taking the money and become charities again, instead of government contractors,” Tilley said. “This is not an issue of religious liberty. Quit sucking at the federal teat, and your religious liberty comes back.”

Dolan also said he discussed the church's concerns with Obama when the two men met last week in the Oval Office. The archbishop said Obama was "extraordinarily friendly" and "very ardent" in reassuring Dolan that the administration would look into the problems.

Bishops hope to persuade federal lawmakers to retain the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1996, and launched a new website called Obama has said his administration would no longer defend the law, calling it "counter to the Constitution." Bishops said it was wrong to describe their religious convictions as discrimination.

"The church has nothing against compromise, but we can't compromise principle," Dolan said.

Though he disagreed with Dolan’s appraisal of religious liberty, Prof. Tilley praised Dolan’s candor and eloquence in depicting a Catholic Church that sometimes struggles with its identity.

“And [he] acknowledged the church has warts and wrinkles,” Tilley said. “That’s simply true.”

With the Associated Press