WASHINGTON (CNS) -- All Americans, whatever their faith or political party, should stand united in defense of religious liberty, said speakers at the recent National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington.
"This is a bipartisan issue. This is an American issue. Religious freedom is at the core of what it means to be American," said Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which sponsored the May 24 gathering attended by 300 people from across the United States, including religious leaders and state legislators and public policy experts.
Walsh said at the outset of the daylong meeting that his program, and that day's gathering, was committed to "protecting and strengthening Americans' God-given and constitutional religious freedoms."
The meeting was subtitled "Rising Threats to Religious Freedom," and speakers examined various threats, including state laws that violate the conscience rights of health workers, with a background paper noting that regulations in Illinois and Washington "require pharmacists to dispense abortion-inducing drugs even if doing so violates their religious convictions."
Many speakers warned about the threat to religious liberty posed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate requiring nearly all employers to provide workers with health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations, even when those services and procedures go against the teachings of religious institutions such as Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies.
Hannah Smith, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, noted that the mandate only exempts religious institutions that exist primarily to spread their faith and that primarily hire and serve people of their own faith. Catholic leaders objecting to the mandate have noted that the limited exemption would not protect Catholic outreach programs that historically serve all people, regardless of faith.
"It's one of the narrowest exemptions to date in federal or state law," she said, noting that laws have offered exceptions to religious groups since the nation's beginning, when, for example, Quakers were excused from taking up arms in the Revolutionary War because of their pacifist views.
"Today we stand no closer to resolving this serious infringement on religious liberty," Smith, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said. "This is not simply a Catholic issue," she said. "It is an issue that affects people of all faiths."
Three days before the conference, 43 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions filed a total of 12 lawsuits in district courts across the country, challenging the HHS mandate. The plaintiffs include the archdioceses of Washington and New York and the University of Notre Dame.
In an interfaith panel that followed, Oakland Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone expressed gratitude toward people of other faiths who have stood with Catholic institutions in opposing the HHS mandate's threat to religious freedom. "We recognize this is the state intruding into the affairs of churches, even defining what constitutes ministry," he said.
Bishop Cordileone said that united effort among Americans, especially faith groups, in defense of religious freedom "is not a political struggle."
"I really believe this is a new movement for our nation. Religious liberty benefits everyone," the bishop said, noting that people of faith can remain true to their values and bring them to the public square, and inspired by their faith, continue their outreach to those in need. "We are here today because we love the United States of America and want what is best for her. We are here because we know, if we don't stand together, our nation will fall apart."
Also on that panel, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, said, "True religious freedom allows the freedom to be true to your beliefs and customs, even when unpopular with neighbors." Speaking of the effort among interfaith leaders to support religious freedom, he said, "It is my privilege to join arms with all of you."
Earlier in the day, speakers warned against being indifferent to threats against religious freedom. Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, said, "In America, many of us have taken the expansive view of religious liberty for granted. Perhaps the increased debate (over threats to religious freedom) will help us appreciate it more and spur us to action."
Robert George, director of the James Madison program in American ideals and institutions at Princeton University, said a critical aspect of religious freedom is for people of faith not only to be free to worship in churches or synagogues or pray in their homes, but also to have the freedom to "bring one's moral values to the public square" in an effort to serve the common good.
Panel discussions at the conference also examined state legislative efforts to protect religious freedom, and the increasing challenges that military chaplains face when their church teachings collide with popular views or public policies on issues like same-sex marriage.