November 2011 Church & State | People & Events

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has accused President Barack Obama’s administration of an “assault” on religious liberty and says it will create a new watchdog group to press its views in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced creation of the new body, called the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, Sept. 30. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City, who serves as USCCB president, asserted that the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are “increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America” thanks to Obama’s policies.

The new committee will be chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. It will include a lawyer and a lobbyist, both of whom will focus on “religious liberty and marriage issues,” the USCCB said in a statement.

The bishops already lobby aggressively in Washington on a range of issues, including pressing for taxpayer aid to the church’s private school system and against reproductive rights. But this new arm is believed to be the first entity dedicated strictly to social issues.

In a letter to U.S. bishops, Dolan listed six issues of particular concern: a requirement in the new health care bill that private insurers cover birth control; a requirement that groups providing services to refugees provide reproductive services to victims of trafficking and minors; demands that HIV-prevention programs include condom distribution; the administration’s support for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act; the U.S. Justice Department’s stance in favor of abolishing the “ministerial exception” that gives religious groups broad leeway to discriminate in hiring; and passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York.

Critics say the bishops are not being honest about their real agenda.

“The bishops are not simply committed to protecting their right to act out of conscience,” said Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “The Timothy Dolan-led bishops’ goal is to make contraception as unavailable as possible. By seeking to limit insurance coverage for it, they want secular society to send the message that it is immoral.”

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told The Washington Times the bishops are trying to “enact a belief system” on Catholics, even though church members disagree. Most Catholics support family planning, he told the newspaper, but the hierarchy is setting up a new lobbying unit to advance its “very narrow, strict” views in public policy.

Religious Right leaders, however, are thrilled that the bishops are escalating their lobbying.

In his Oct. 4 “Washington Update,” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said, “I welcome their renewed commitment to the fight before us. We are united in the fight for faith, family, and freedom.”