A panel of the nation's Catholic bishops said Thursday that their flock "must have the courage not to obey unjust laws" and called for Catholic political leaders, clergy and laity to pray, fast and speak out for religious liberty during a two-week period that ends on Independence Day.
"What we ask is nothing more than that our God-given right to religious liberty be respected," the members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Archbishop-designate William E. Lori of Baltimore, said in a statement.
The bishops have clashed with the Obama administration over several issues, notably its mandate that even religiously affiliated employers and insurers must provide birth-control coverage - including products that can induce abortions - in their employee health insurance policies.
The ad hoc committee statement quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," which itself cited St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, about how "an unjust law is no law at all."
"It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed," the bishops said.
"If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them," they said, calling it "a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith."
The bishops also called for "A Fortnight for Freedom" to run from June 21 through July 4.
During these two weeks, Catholics should fast and pray "for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country" and turn "all the energies the Catholic community can muster" toward religious liberty, said the ad hoc panel of 10 member bishops, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, and five consulting bishops.
"What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society - or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it," the bishops said.
"This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon or Muslim issue. It is an American issue."
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, which supports the Obama administration's contraception rules, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "seems to think it has the right to redefine religious liberty. It does not."
"The U.S. Constitution is very clear that religious liberty includes freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion, despite the best efforts of the bishops to pretend otherwise," Mr. O'Brien said Thursday.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that while it "firmly supports" the right of churches to "minister to people regardless of their immigration status" - a position shared by the Catholic bishops - the ACLU cannot endorse statements that religious freedom is under assault in America.
"We do not believe that any religious institution has the right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate or deny services to the public, and certainly should not expect to receive government funds to do so," the ACLU said.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue said that the bishops' statement is "a clarion call to the Catholic community, and beyond, to get serious about religious rights, both at home and abroad."
It is "a clear signal to those at all levels of government that Catholics are prepared to exercise civil disobedience, if necessary. Don't push us," Mr. Donohue said.
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