WASHINGTON — All Americans, whatever their faith or political party, should stand united in defense of religious liberty, said speakers at the National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington.
Hannah Smith, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, noted that the mandate only exempts religious institutions that exist primarily to spread their faith and that primarily hire and serve people of their own faith. Catholic leaders objecting to the mandate have noted that the limited exemption would not protect Catholic outreach programs that historically serve all people, regardless of faith.
"It's one of the narrowest exemptions to date in federal or state law," she said, noting that laws have offered exceptions to religious groups since the nation's beginning, when, for example, Quakers were excused from taking up arms in the Revolutionary War because of their pacifist views.
"Today we stand no closer to resolving this serious infringement on religious liberty," said Smith, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "This is not simply a Catholic issue," she added. "It is an issue that affects people of all faiths."
Three days before the conference, 43 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed a total of 12 lawsuits in district courts across the country, challenging the HHS mandate. The plaintiffs include the archdioceses of Washington and New York and the University of Notre Dame.
In an interfaith panel that followed, Oakland Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone expressed gratitude toward people of other faiths who have stood with Catholic institutions in opposing the HHS mandate's threat to religious freedom. "We recognize this is the state intruding into the affairs of churches, even defining what constitutes ministry," he said.
Bishop Cordileone said that united effort among Americans, especially faith groups, in defense of religious freedom "is not a political struggle."
"I really believe this is a new movement for our nation. ... Religious liberty benefits everyone," the bishop said, noting that people of faith can remain true to their values and bring them to the public square, and inspired by their faith, continue their outreach to those in need. "We are here today because we love the United States of America and want what is best for her. ... We are here because we know, if we don't stand together, our nation will fall apart."
Other speakers encouraged the effort among interfaith leaders to support religious freedom, and warned against being indifferent to threats against religious freedom.
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