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June 26, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
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Prelates listen to a speaker June 15 during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual spring assembly in Indianapolis.
JOHN SHAUGHNESSY/THE CRITERION, CNS

Concerns for religious liberty, health care echo at assembly

INDIANAPOLIS — Reflecting their concern that religious liberty at home and abroad remains a top priority, the U.S. bishops during their spring general assembly in Indianapolis voted to make permanent their Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Voting 132-53 with five abstentions June 15, the second day of the assembly, the bishops' action came less than a week before the start of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom June 21-July 4. The observance is a two-week period of prayer, advocacy and education on religious freedom.

 
Related story

Threats to religious freedom appearing at local level
 
Some bishops voiced their strong support for the committee, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who chaired the USCCB when the committee was formed, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. The most recent past president of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, also supported making the committee permanent.

The bishops of the world "look to us," Cardinal Dolan told his fellow bishops, "to be the real quarterbacks" in "defense of religious freedom."

A few bishops voiced objections to making the committee permanent in the discussions before the vote.

Several were concerned about how it would appear to make the religious liberty committee permanent at the same time that the bishops' working group on immigration, begun in November, finished its formal work.

But Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, announced June 15 he was extending the group "recognizing the continued urgency" so many migration and refugee issues present.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president and the group's chairman, and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, outlined the working group's origins, activities and next steps on issues.

The bishops also reiterated that their efforts are focused on "ensuring the fundamental right of medical care" for all people as the U.S. Senate worked in mid-June on a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act after the U.S. House of Representatives had passed its own measure, the American Health Care Act.

The chairman of the National Review Board, which works to respond to and prevent sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel, updated the bishops June 14 on the board's work and presented key points of the recently issued 14th annual report on diocesan compliance with the U.S. Catholic Church's "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

In a related event, the bishops celebrated a liturgy in response to a call from Pope Francis to episcopal conferences around the world to observe a "Day of Prayer and Penance" for survivors of sexual abuse within the church.

The bishops also heard reports from the chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace about international persecution and human rights violations; final plans for the July 1-4 "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America" in Orlando, Florida; and the progress of a working group on migrants and refugees.

Worldwide, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, international policy committee chairman, said in a June 15 report that religious persecution "includes both social hostilities and government restrictions."

The USCCB reinforced its stand that the American Health Care Act passed by the House of Representatives May 4 needs major reform — to provide quality health care for the "voiceless," especially children, the elderly, the poor, immigrants and the seriously ill.

"We find ourselves in a time marked by a deep sense of urgency and gravity," said Bishop George L. Thomas of Helena, Montana, in remarks to the assembly. "Within two weeks, we may see a federal budgetary action with potentially catastrophic effects on the lives of our people, most especially children and the elderly, the seriously ill, the immigrant and our nation's working poor."

Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, urged the bishops June 14 to continue their commitment to stopping clergy sexual abuse and supporting victims of abuse "at the forefront" of their ministry.

Catholic News Service and Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.


Threats to religious freedom appearing at local level


Alan Sears of Alliance Defending Freedom, which has trained about 2,000 lawyers in the intricacies of defending religious freedom.
Bohumil Petrik/Catholic News Agency


Contemporary threats to religious freedom are coming on repeatedly at the local level in much of the nation today, with attacks coming from many sources, including local judges, city councils and school boards.

That warning was raised by Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom. Best known for fighting to defend religious liberty at the national level, Sears said that the threat is real and on-going at all levels of government, including local government entities, not just the federal government. Sears spoke at the May Catholics at Work breakfast, encouraging people to become aware of and get involved in defending freedom of religious belief.

Sears heads the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has trained about 2,000 lawyers in the intricacies of defending religious freedom.

"The determination to drive out of the public square any discussion of the reality of our Christian heritage, of the natural family, of God's gift of biological sexuality and gender, and to silence the faithful is just below the surface," Sears emphasized.

The attacks come in many forms. Examples he cited include a ban on conducting Bible study or even posting notices of Mass times in HUD-funded housing, and a new California lawsuit trying to force a Catholic hospital to perform a hysterectomy on a man.

"The same determination to silence the truth is just below the surface, even in Washington today," Sears emphasized.

Since its formation 23 years ago alliance-trained lawyers and law students help in the fight and it has built a network of more than 3,000 attorneys who help defend freedom.

Sears fought and won a landmark federal case when a family-owned Colorado company, Hercules Industries, was pressured to provide abortion and other life-ending services to its employees after passage of the Affordable Care Act.

"The Obama administration said they should be forced to violate God's order."

The government tried to levy a fine of $36,500 a year for each Hercules employee if the family did not comply. The Newland family, which had just been named a model employer, refused, based on their religious beliefs. They were prepared to close their company rather than comply. ADF defended the company and won a permanent injunction protecting the company in 2015.

Sears noted that temporal rulers have tried to force Christians to violate their religious beliefs over the centuries, even unto death. St. Thomas More's refusal to bow to King Henry VIII's demand for a divorce and for supreme power over the church resulted in the bishop's execution.

Today there is a little relief for faithful Catholics as the Trump administration takes a less dogmatic position than the previous president Sears noted.

But the attacks continue at the state and local level as groups that want to remove religious considerations from policy decisions repeatedly attack people who maintain a belief in the sanctity of human life and the family, Sears emphasized.

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