US Catholics highlight religious freedom for Independence Day

(Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York addresses the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland November 14, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Ahead of U.S. Independence Day celebrations on July 4, American Catholics are engaged in highlighting religious freedom issues faced in the United States and around the world.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is sponsoring Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period of prayer and action to address what they say are challenges to religious liberty.

Activities began on June 21 and will end on Independence Day. This is the second successive year the bishops have held the event.

Of particular concern to the Catholic leaders is an August 1 deadline issued by the federal government for employers, including religious organizations, to comply with a mandate to provide heath insurance coverage for contraception.

Many religious groups, not just Catholics, have voiced objections to the mandate, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Churches and religious orders will not have to comply, but it is less clear what the requirements will be for faith-based organizations such as hospitals, schools and soup kitchens, the Catholic News Agency reported.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has finalized an "accommodation" to organizations which are not strictly houses of worship, but critics complain that these groups will still be facilitating the coverage.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York referred to the lines of a poem associated with the Statue of Liberty in discussing the reasons for Fortnight for Freedom in his blog on June 20.

Emma Lazarus' lines say "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Dolan said, "In recent years it has become a bit more difficult to 'breathe free' as deeply as we would like. The atmosphere is not so clear and mild anymore. Our liberty - like clean air - isn't something we can take for granted.

"These 14 days are meant to raise awareness and to encourage action on a number of current challenges to religious liberty."

In addition to the HHS mandate, which Dolan said would cause believers to violate their consciences the cardinal listed other areas of concern.

They include Supreme Court rulings concerning the definition of marriage and legislation that would expand abortion rights and assisted suicide.

The bishops are also worried about what they say is government intrusion into the rights and duties of parents regarding their children and persecution of believers around the world.

Dolan indicated that activities would include a celebration of the feast day of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher on June 21, English martyrs who Dolan said "prophetically defended the rights of the Church against intrusion by the Crown" and the birth of Saint John the Baptist on June 24.

He called John the Baptist "the one who defended God's law to a tyrant and lost his head because of his courage."

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore delivered the opening homily for the Fortnight for Freedom.

Lori decried what he said were attempts by the government to separate the Church's worship function from its service role.

In referring to the HHS contraception mandate, Lori said, "The efforts of the government to divide the Church into a worship wing and a service wing do not spring from a theoretical interest in how churches are organized.

"It is part of a broader movement to limit religious freedom to freedom of worship - to accord a fuller degree of religious liberty to houses of worship but a lesser degree of religious freedom to charities, hospitals, and universities."

Lori said that the activities of these faith-based organizations were "part of our baptismal DNA as Catholic Christians."

"No wonder we shudder, no wonder we react so strongly, when governmental authority slices and dices our Church," he said.

On June 24, a forum associated with Fortnight for Freedom was held in Philadelphia in which federal lawmakers, archdiocesan representatives and leaders of companies also emphasized their belief that the HHS mandate infringed on religious freedom.

The USCCB issued a list of 14 ways Catholic parishes could celebrate Fortnight for Freedom.

They suggestions include holding a Catholic movie night, inviting a public figure to speak about religious liberty, hosting a concert, or sponsoring a day of service within the community.

Links to diocesan activities throughout the United States are available on the USCCB website.

At a nighttime prayer vigil in view of the lighted U.S. Capitol building, Senior Policy Advisor of The Catholic Association said that the events of the Fortnight for Freedom would "all have a different flavor, and they are not all Catholic."

"This is very much an ecumenical moment. All people of faith are coming to realize that our freedom of religion is being infringed upon," she said.

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