The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved by unanimous vote on Wednesday a statement reaffirming the church's long standing opposition to President Obama's health care mandate requiring employers and insurers to provide free contraceptive care to employees. The group is meeting in Atlanta, Ga., for their annual conference.
The bishops, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, discussed the issue for over an hour before making the motion which was approved by a voice vote.
"'United for Religious Freedom' describes the bishops as 'strongly unified and intensely focused in ... opposition to the various threats to religious freedom in our day,' and explains that the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate 'demands our immediate attention.' The document identifies three basic problems with the mandate: 'an unwarranted government definition of religion, a mandate to act against our teachings, and a violation of personal civil rights,'" the group said in a written statement released on Thursday.
The religious freedom statement, originally released on March 14, has created distance between the nation's Catholic bishops and the Obama administration, which has refused to give in to the bishops' demands that the mandate be lifted.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, argued in favor of the conscience rights of small businesses and other employers opposed to the inclusion of contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization in private health care plans.
"The idea that individual persons have a right to conscientious objection, as against coercive government action like the HHS mandate – though firmly established in both the teaching of the Church and the policy of the conference for generations – has not merely been called into question, but mocked as some kind of novel or marginal theory," Lori said in his remarks in Atlanta.
While the USCCB has been firm in their opposition to the HHS mandate based on the church's teachings, critics have said that the bishops' focus on the religious freedom component has crossed the line over to partisan politics in an election year.
John Gehring of the liberal Faith in Public Life advocacy group feels the bishops may indeed be crossing the line from religion into politics.
"Most bishops don't want to be the Republican Party at prayer, but their alarmist rhetoric and consistent antagonism toward the Obama administration often convey that impression," Gehring told The Associated Press.
Yet Lori dismisses the accusation, firmly stating that the church had "no partisan agenda," and instead, they were forced into the issue by a series of federal and state laws requiring them to violate their most basic beliefs.
"It is not about parties, candidates or elections as others have suggested," said Lori. "The government chose to pick a fight with us."
The mandate has a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that most religious organizations, such as hospitals and other nonprofits, would not qualify. Federal officials argue that the rule is critical in preserving women's health and helping them better control when they have children.
"We have to get the government out of defining the church," said Bishop Stephen Blaire of California. "We have an enormous battle ahead of us."