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Top U.S. bishops on Wednesday formally made their fight against a White House mandate for reproductive services the church’s top priority, saying “this struggle for religious freedom” demands their immediate attention.
The statement, issued by the leadership of the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops, came at the end of a closed, two-day meeting and comes as some close to the bishops say the men are concerned that their campaign is faltering in the public square.
“This dispute is not about access to contraceptives but about the government’s forcing the church to provide them,” the statement read.
Reverend William E. Lori, Roman Catholic Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., speaks during a Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012, on “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion & Freedom of Conscience.”
The statement represents an expanded PR effort to oppose the mandate that most religious employers — like all employers– provide health care coverage for employees that includes contraception and sterilization, services forbidden under Catholic teaching. The new White House rule spells out which faith groups — primarily houses of worship — are exempt from the requirement.
“If this definition is allowed to stand, it will spread throughout federal law, weakening its healthy tradition of generous respect for religious freedom and diversity,” the bishops’ Administrative Committee said.
The bishops will also in the coming days launch a broader PR effort about religious freedom, expanding to include not only reproductive issues but state and local laws they say reflect a chipping away at the rights of religious groups. They’ll go after laws requiring religious ministries to turn in illegal immigrants they serve, limitations on religious groups on college campuses, restrictions on religious groups renting public schools for worship and other issues the bishops argue add up to a trend.
But some church-watchers say the bishops are trying to remake their public image on this subject, having won a great deal of public support earlier in the year on the health care issue — even from more liberal Catholics — and then seemingly getting caught up as the issue became more strongly partisan.
Recently, condemnations of Rush Limbaugh’s comments calling Georgetown law student and contraception advocate Sandra Fluke a ‘slut’ have diverted attention away from the bishops’ initial religious liberty argument. Meanwhile, Cardinal Francis George, former head of the USCCB, compared the Obama administration in 2012 to communists during the Cold War while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, current president of the bishops’ conference, compared the mandate to cover contraception with a made-up scenario of a sexually frustrated man who visits a prostitute and seeks government reimbursement. The comedy show “Saturday Night Live” lumped the bishops’ efforts to oppose the mandate in with the Virginia law requiring pre-abortion transvaginal ultrasounds and other limits on reproductive freedoms.
“When there is a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit making fun of a bishop, you may have lost the framing issue,” said Michael Sean Winters, a liberal Catholic writer close to some bishops. “The bishops managed to change the nature of the debate in the beginning, but now how do they get it back?”
Tom Farr, who runs a religious freedom project at Georgetown University, said he thinks many Catholic Americans want to see the bishops continue their challenge to the White House mandate and to expand it.
“It’s fair to say in general bishops have not always gotten involved in public matters and sometimes are too slow,” he said. “I’m tickled that these men seem to be getting their act together.”
A spokeswoman for the bishops said they had been trying to frame the religious freedom campaign broadly since last fall, but were forced by news events to focus on the health care mandate and contraception.
“For one thing, that’s what everyone is asking them about,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, she added that the mandate is “the most significant” item on the agenda of the bishops meeting this week, the heads of the conference’s committees.
Walsh said members of the conference are continuing meetings with the White House to try and find a compromise on the mandate, but there are major stumbling blocks. Among the core questions is how the regulations will define an exempt religious organization. (Read more on defining ‘religious’ in the HHS regulations here.)
In the meantime, the bishops will launch their public religious freedom campaigns in the media, in efforts with lawmakers and in parishes with priests sermonizing.
“It’s a full-court press,” she said.