"This great national legacy of religious liberty has been subject to ever more frequent assault and ever more rapid erosion," Roman Catholic bishop William Lori told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the state of religious freedom in this country.
Accounts of the federal government interfering with religious freedom have increasingly surfaced within the past few months. Lori mentioned a few of those instances in his testimony to the Subcommittee on the Constitution:
-- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued regulations to mandate the coverage of contraception, including abortifacients, and sterilization as preventive services in almost all private health insurance plans.
-- The U.S. Agency for International Development is increasingly requiring contractors to provide contraception in a range of international relief and development programs.
-- The Department of Justice (DOJ) has started filing briefings actively attacking the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, claiming supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bigotry.
-- DOJ needlessly attacked the very existence of the ministerial exception before the Supreme Court, in opposition to a vast coalition of religious groups urging its preservation.
-- At the state level, religious liberty protections associated with the redefinition of marriage have fallen short of what is necessary.
Lori pointed to the significance of the Founding Fathers' placing of free exercise of religion in the country's First Amendment. He also expressed his belief that it is the duty of Congress to protect that right.
"Religious liberty is inherent in our very humanity, hard-wired into each and every one of us by our Creator," Lori said in his written testimony at the Oct. 26 hearing. "Thus government has a perennial obligation to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment."
Colby May, director of the American Center for Law and Justice's Washington office, agreed with Lori about the urgent need to defend religious freedom.
"Religious liberty has been and always must be the crucial cornerstone among which our freedoms rest," May told the committee. "Without it, we are doomed."
The bishop suggested Congress pass three bills that would ensure freedom of conscience and religious liberty for health insurers and health care providers. Those bills are the Protect Life Act, the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.
Passing of the Protect Life Act would protect against federal tax funding of abortion and strengthen freedom of conscience rights. The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act would ban abortion-related discrimination in government organizations. The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act would defend rights of conscience concerning specific requirements for coverage of particular services.
Lori reiterated the necessity of swift attention to religious liberty threats by referring to those threats as a disease.
"We can -- and must -- also treat the symptoms immediately," said Lori, "lest the disease be spread so quickly that the patient is overcome before the ultimate cure can be formulated and delivered."
Holly Naylor, a senior at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., is attending the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities' Washington Journalism Center this semester and serving as an intern with Baptist Press.
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