More than 150 leaders across a spectrum of conservative Christianity on Friday released a 4,700-word document vowing civil disobedience if they are forced to take part in "anti-life acts" or bless gay marriages.
Called the "Manhattan Declaration," the six-page, single-spaced document was drafted by Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson, an evangelical, and Princeton University professor Robert P. George, a Roman Catholic, and included a bevy of Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox bishops, archbishops and cardinals as signatories along with dozens of clergy and laity.
Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl is one of the signatories.
"Throughout the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required," says the document which cited civil rights icon Martin Luther King and his willingness to go to jail for his beliefs.
"Because we honor justice and the common good," it states, "we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide or euthanasia or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family."
When pressed to say what sorts of civil disobedience the writers were proposing, its originators were vague on the details at Friday's news conference during which the document was released.
"We certainly hope it doesn't come to that," said Mr. George, who added that he has represented a West Virginia resident who has refused to pay a portion of her state income tax that funds abortions. "However, we see case after case of challenges to religious liberty," such as compelling pharmacists to carry abortifacient drugs or health care workers to assist in abortions, he added.
"When the limits of conscience are reached and you cannot comply, it's better to suffer a wrong than to do it," he said.
There are at least 224 million Christians in the United States, according to the Web site Adherents.com.
The document, which was drafted over the summer, is being released at a time of high stress for many of the groups that signed it. The Archdiocese of Washington is under fire for saying it will not comply with a pending D.C. law that would force the Catholic Church to give health benefits or adoption services to same-sex couples.
Archbishop Wuerl, who attended the news conference, said it was a "joy" to welcome the religious leaders at the news conference and emphasized that their task "is to change human hearts. That is how society is changed."
Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, one of the signers, said people's consciences must be formed first.
"The institution of marriage is at risk of being redefined at its very essence," he said. "Justice demands that we not remain silent in face of these threats."
However, he twice dodged a reporter's question about whether it would be a mortal sin for a politician to vote for a national health care bill that obligates taxpayers to pay for abortions.
Several speakers said the document was moral, not political, in nature and that the bulk of it defines three core issues: life, marriage and religious liberty.
"This is truly a matter of the heart," said the Rev. Robert Sirico, founder of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. "To portray it as something other is to mischaracterize our intentions."
But the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the document was very political.
"I am optimistic that the people in the pews will not heed their leaders' misguided call to action," he said. "Polls show that most churchgoers do not want to see their faith politicized. But I am also well aware that religious leaders have vast lobbying power that cannot be ignored."
The document does portray a gloomy picture of the current political situation, citing the "pro-abortion ideology [that] prevails today in our government."
It adds, "The present administration is led and staffed by those who want to make abortions legal at any stage of fetal development and who want to provide abortions at taxpayer expense. Majorities in both houses [of Congress] hold pro-abortion views."
The first 148 signatures include Southern Baptists, Anglicans, the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), members of Reformed, evangelical, Hispanic Protestant, Church of God in Christ, Antiochian Orthodox and Evangelical Free Church traditions plus the executives of numerous parachurch ministries.
There were only a handful of Presbyterians, United Methodists and Pentecostals, and no apparent signatories from Seventh-day Adventist, Messianic Jewish and Episcopal churches.