Bishops say government eroding religious liberty !

By RACHEL ZOLL
AP
Religion Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) — U.S. Roman Catholic bishops vowed Monday
to defend their religious liberty in the face of growing acceptance of gay
marriage and what they called attempts by secularists to marginalize faith.

Bishop William Lori, leader of a new national religious
liberty committee, condemned federal and state policies that he said interfered
with the church’s ability to provide social services, from health care to
immigrant support to international aid.

In Illinois, government officials stopped working with
Catholic Charities on adoptions and foster-care placements after 40 years
because the agency refused to recognize a new civil union law. Illinois bishops
had sued the state but on Monday said they would stop the legal fight and no
longer provide state-funded services.

In New York, the bishops, along with Orthodox Jewish leaders
and others, have complained that the religious exception in this year’s law
allowing gay marriage is too weak to be effective.

On the federal level, the bishops have been pressing the
Health and Human Services Department during its public comment period for a
broader religious exception to part of President Barack Obama’s health care
overhaul that mandates private insurers pay for contraception.

“We should not be obliged to provide services or other
initiatives that are contrary to our conscience,” said Lori, bishop of
Bridgeport, Conn. “We don’t need the government forcing our hand.”

Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are not just reacting to Obama’s policies,
but to a broader society in 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.

But Dolan 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.

“I left there feeling a bit more at peace with this issue
than when I entered,” Dolan said.

Religious freedom was the main focus at the fall meeting of
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has public sessions through
Tuesday.

The new religious liberty committee that church leaders
formed met for the first time. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the
conference, will oversee that work, which will include hiring a lobbyist and
another attorney.

Picarello had worked for seven years at the Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, and also
served on an advisory committee for Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and
Neighborhood Partnerships.

Bishops hope to persuade federal lawmakers to retain the
Defense of Marriage Act, which passed in 1996, and launched a new website called
Marriageuniqueforareason.org. 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.

The bishops are confronting the Health and Human Services
Department on another front. The government agency recently decided not to renew
a contract held since 2006 by the bishops’ refugee services office to help
victims of human trafficking.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to stop the
agency from making grants to groups who “impose religiously based restrictions
on reproductive health services” for human trafficking victims. The women are
often raped and forced into prostitution by their captors.

The bishops’ conference has called the decision biased
against Catholic beliefs. Agency officials vehemently deny any bias and say the
sole criteria for evaluating potential grantees was which group could best serve
the victims. Administration officials note that the vast network of Catholic
social service nonprofits, including the bishops’ conference, receives hundreds
of millions of dollars in government funding in amounts that have increased in
the last couple of years.

“We should not be at a disadvantage competing for contracts
because we bring certain convictions to the table,” Lori said.

AP writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this
report.

© 2011 The Associated
Press. All rights reserved.

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