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Religious liberty, the first freedom

In speaking with parishioners and non-Catholics as well, I hear with each passing day a deepening concern regarding the Department of Health and Human Services' mandate for Catholic institutions to provide coverage for sterilization procedures, abortifacient drugs and contraceptives. People of faith and conscience recognize the mandate as a violation of our First Amendment rights. They recognize, as the fog of political maneuvering subsides, that clearly this is a constitutional matter of religious liberty. Religious liberty is often referred to as our first freedom. It is. It is a fundamental freedom valued not just by people of faith, but by all Americans.

This HHS controversy never was about access to contraceptives, nor about their cost in a society where they are abundantly available, inexpensive and even free in qualified cases. It is about the government forcing the church to provide them against its teachings - against the core doctrines of the faith. My fellow bishop, William E. Lori, archbishop-designate of Baltimore and chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, rightfully has testified that "…for the federal government to ask us to over-ride our teachings, whether popular or not, there has to be a compelling government interest."

There are so many other ways to increase access to contraceptives that do not violate free exercise of religion. In the absence, therefore, of a compelling public health or other national interest, the mandate and its subsequent accommodation squarely become an egregious violation of conscience rights.

Conscience rights apply as well to the individual employer unaffiliated with the church or the self-employed who value their First Amendment protection.

The timing of this assault on the Constitution is in the plainest possible terms, not good. The recession, even with some encouraging economic data these past few months, is still a painful reality in our daily lives and looks to be with us for a long while. In the middle of this continuing crisis, the administration in Washington has chosen to violate the religious liberty of the Catholic Church and threaten to penalize non-compliance with overwhelming fines.

Do we need to remind our federal health care administrators that 620 Catholic hospitals care for 1 out of every 6 patients in the United States and they employ over 550,000 full-time workers and 240,000 part-time workers? Is this a segment of patient-care and the workforce that should be at risk because of an unnecessary and over-reaching dictate?

Even closer to home, Catholic Charities in the diocese, with operating offices in New London, Willimantic, Norwich and Portland/Middletown, served over 8,500 individuals last year - providing assistance with basic needs, behavioral health, housing counseling, adoption services, and immigration assistance. These numbers continue to increase as the recession remains with us. These are services provided to Catholic and non-Catholic families. Should these programs, that lift so many lives right here in our communities, be at risk?

Should our state-wide Catholic schools that save Connecticut taxpayers over $400 million per year be at risk?

The Catholic Church relies on the Constitution to protect its right to uphold its teachings as it goes about its mission to help those most in need while living its faith. This mission, as described by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, is "The charity of Christ and of the Church towards those who suffer."

The good works of the church have been put at risk in the middle of a deep recession without a compelling national interest at stake. Why? It may be that the administration, with its myriad of election year polls, thought they saw divided thinking within the church and chose to challenge free exercise of religion, expecting only mild resistance. If so, they made a gross miscalculation. People of all faiths respect and value religious freedom. Constitutional rights are not determined by polls. Constitutional rights are not a judgment call. Erosion of the constitution can be insidiously gradual.

We people of faith are not going to stand by and let erosion take its toll. We will fight to preserve religious liberty in America. We ask all people of conscience and faith to contact your congressional representative and U.S. senators to express your opposition to the mandate. It must be rescinded.

Bishop Cote is the bishop for Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, which covers eastern Connecticut.

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