The U.S. Catholic Church, beginning on Thursday, will spend two weeks focusing attention on the issue of religious freedom. The "Fortnight for Freedom" will end, appropriately, on the Fourth of July. While it was planned long before, the Obama administration's birth control mandate will now be a central focus of the event.
The two weeks of prayer, study and public action will remember Christians who were persecuted for their faith, such as John Fisher, Thomas More, and Apostles Peter and Paul.
The kickoff event will be a 7 p.m. Thursday Mass as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption, Baltimore, Md. The closing Mass will be at 12:10 p.m., July 4, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Various events will also be held at dioceses and parishes across the country. Supporters can also send the text message "freedom" or "libertad" (Spanish for "freedom") to 377377 to receive information regularly during the event.
"Across America, our right to live out our faith is being threatened – from Washington's forcing Catholic institutions to provide services that contradict their beliefs, to state governments' prohibiting religious charities from serving the most vulnerable," said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement Thursday.
The birth control mandate controversy began in January when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that, under the Affordable Care Act, employers who provide insurance to their employees would be required to cover contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs without a co-pay. There is a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that most religious employers, such as Catholic schools and hospitals, would not qualify.
Due to the controversy, President Obama announced in February that religious employers with objections would not need to provide the coverage but their insurers would have to provide it to any employer who asked for it without any additional premium or co-pay. Catholic leaders have said that this change does not go far enough and they remain concerned that narrow religious exemption would set a dangerous precedent. All religious groups, not just groups that provide religious instruction and worship services, should be given the same religious freedom protections, they argue.
Catholics for Choice, a lay Catholic organization that supports legalized abortion, objects to the "Fortnight for Freedom," calling it a "divisive, self-serving war."
"This is not at all about religious freedom, unless it's the bishops' freedom to make the rules for everyone. It is no mistake that the bishops are waging a war to force the body politic to bend the knee to their demands in this election year," David Nolan, communications director for Catholics for Choice, said in a statement.
The Catholic Association, another lay Catholic organization, takes a different view.
"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, this is a freedom and First Amendment issue," said Ashley McGuire, senior fellow for The Catholic Association. "By forcing this mandate on people of faith, the federal government has erased the line of separation between Church and State."