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(Credit: Diocese of Scranton)

(Credit: Diocese of Scranton)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

Yesterday (July 2) a group of inter-religious leaders released a letter responding to the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services (HHS) final version of its contraceptive insurance coverage mandate. In a press conference at Washington D.C.’s National Press Club, four signatories gave statements explaining how the HHS contraceptive and abortifacient mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention expressed frustration at Obama Administration’s response to religious liberty pleas, stating: “the government has given us word games and accounting tricks that amount to the same mandate, over and over again.”

“Our religious convictions inform the way we live,” Moore said. “We support freedom of conscience not only for ourselves, but for all,” he continued. Even those who do not profess religious belief “have an interest in the protection of these liberties … If the federal government can force organizations and businesses to pave over their own consciences … what will stop the government from imposing its will on your conscience next?”

Archbishop William Lori of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore pointed out the HHS mandate “divides our Church into three separate camp: houses of worship v. ‘accommodated’ religious institutions v. for-profit entities run by religious leaders.” He explained “the faith by which we worship on Sunday is the very same faith by which we act in the world the other six days of the week.” He noted the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) “is still analyzing the specifics of the ‘accommodation’ … [but is] ‘very similar’ to its February 2013 proposal.”

Dr. Anne Hendershott, a self-described “pro-life Catholic” and sociologist at Franciscan University of Steubenville said she has “been happy to teach in schools where I would not be asked to contribute to causes that are contrary to what my Church teaches.” But now, the HHS mandate “will require me – as a faithful Catholic – to purchase insurance that my Church teaches is seriously immoral,” she explained.

“There are now over 60 total lawsuits against the mandate,” she said, and although lawsuits brought by religious non-profits like Franciscan University have been dismissed on grounds that they have not yet been injured by the mandate, Hendershott said “We have already been injured by this unjust mandate because our constitutional right to religious freedom has already been compromised … There is every indication that this will escalate.”

Dr. Yuri Mantilla, a professor of law at Liberty University School of Law emphasized the international recognition of religious freedom rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and promoted by the US around the world. “Violations of religious freedom in the United States and abroad are unacceptable. This is especially the case when they involve the protection of innocent human life … It is time to restore the great American tradition of respect for religious freedom as a fundamental civil right,” he stated.

“We think the issue here is the principle of conscience and free exercise of religion,” Moore stated in the Q&A time. He pointed out Americans already have broad freedom to use whatever contraception they choose, but it is an affront to religious liberty to expect those with moral objections to provide birth control, sterilization procedures, or abortifacients.

Archbishop Lori added that business and institutions have a particular “ethos” and prospective employees can turn down a job if they disagree with a potential employer’s view on contraceptives.

Moore said the next step is to “not back down,” continue petitioning the Obama Administration to reconsider, and “work with members of Congress toward a legislative solution.”

The letter’s signatories come from a wide variety of Christian denominations, including evangelical, mainline, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions. IRD President Mark Tooley signed the letter and his account of the press conference can be found here.

The text of the letter is below.

Standing Together for Religious Freedom

We write as an informal and diverse group of religious leaders, theologians, lay practitioners and community servants. We believe the doctrines of our respective faiths require something of us beyond the walls of our churches, synagogues, temples, and other places of worship. Those faith convictions manifest themselves through our daily interactions among family, neighbors, strangers and institutions.

Further, we recognize the United States, at its best, is unique among the nations of the world when it defends the self-evident freedom of all people to exercise their faith according to the dictates of their consciences. This freedom contributes to the vibrancy of our nation. Unfortunately, this delicate liberty of conscience is under threat.

Through its contraceptive coverage mandate, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) continues to breach universal principles affirmed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws. While the mandate is a specific offense, it represents a greater fundamental breach of conscience by the federal government. Very simply, HHS is forcing Citizen A, against his or her moral convictions, to purchase a product for Citizen B. The HHS policy is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining–or casting aside–religious doctrine. This should trouble every American.

Many of the signatories on this letter do not hold doctrinal objections to the use of contraception. Yet we stand united in protest to this mandate, recognizing the encroachment on the conscience of our fellow citizens. Whether or not we agree with the particular conscientious objection is beside the point. HHS continues to deny many Americans the freedom to manifest their beliefs through practice and observance in their daily lives.

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Free exercise includes the freedom to order one’s life, liberties and pursuits in accordance with his or her convictions. HHS breaches the free exercise clause and federal statutes (passed with broad bipartisan support) by selectively denying some Americans this constitutionally protected right.

Americans afford each other broad liberties with respect to lifestyle choices. However, the federal government has neither a compelling interest nor the appropriate authority to coerce one citizen to fund or facilitate specific lifestyle choices of another. If the federal government can force morally opposed individuals to purchase contraception or abortion-causing drugs and devices for a third party, what prevents this or future administrations from forcing other Americans to betray their deeply held convictions?

Therefore, we call upon HHS to, at a minimum, expand conscience protections under the mandate to cover any organization or individual that has religious or moral objections to covering, providing or enabling access to the mandated drugs and services. Further, because HHS claims to be acting on authority granted it by Congress, we ask Congress to consider how it might prevent such offenses from occurring in the future. Any policy that falls short of affirming full religious freedom protection for all Americans is unacceptable.

Signatories and the original letter can be found here.