The federal government must take care not to penalize religious expression, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said in an interview aired Sunday, as religious groups crank up their objections to a mandate in the Obama administration's health care law that requires free contraceptive coverage in health care plans.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Cardinal Donald Wuerl said the Church is reviewing Obama administration policies -- most recently its proposed regulation to change the definition of "religious employers" to allow narrow exemptions to the contraceptive care rule.
"One of the things that our conference of bishop has done in response to some of the regulations and some of the difficulties that our Catholic institution are finding is to calls all of us to reflect again on the importance that in a pluralistic society, the importance of respecting the religious traditions, the religious freedom, the freedom of conscious of everyone," Wuerl said.
"The church has always been the public effort to meet issues like feeding the hungry, providing care for people in need, the homeless, that we would always be a part of that, and to do that today we need to be all the more respectful of the freedom of conscience, the freedom of religious expression of everyone of us," he continued.
The latest dispute comes after the administration in September denied funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking because the bishops refuse to refer victims of the slave trade to contraception or abortion services.
After being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to award the grants only to agencies that would refer women for those services, even though the conference, which has had a federal contract since 2006, fared better in providing services than other groups that applied for and were awarded the grants.
Federal laws currently say no funding can be given to groups that provide abortion -- an argument that has been made for defunding Planned Parenthood. But pro-life groups say the administration has effectively reversed that policy, and is hurting religious organizations that perform other valuable services because of the intrinsic "call to conscience" that prevents them from providing assistance to abortion or birth control.
Wuerl declined to say whether he thought the administration was involved in a "war on religion," as presidential candidate Rick Perry has put it.
But the cardinal, who earlier this month issued a forceful statement criticizing the state of Maryland for not regulating abortion clinics as outpatient surgical centers, said the Church has long provided ministry and social services without question, and there's no reason now to penalize it over its faith.
"We serve whether it's in education, catholic charities, whether it's in relief of migrants, immigrants, whether it's in social service ministry," Wuerl said. "We serve people all over this nation. What we don't do is violate the conscience of all of us involved there's some things we won't do but that should be respected because it's always been respected."
Wuerl, who also performed Newt Gingrich's baptism during his conversion to Catholicism, said that he wouldn't speak personally about the Republican presidential candidate's past marriages or other aspects of his relationship, but he hopes voters respect every candidate's religious background.
"When we're looking at what's the best leader for our country, there shouldn't be some sort of litmus test: What religion do they belong to, what is their religious experience?" he said. "I think what we want to do is look at the candidate and see, does that person share the values that I think are important, does that person present policies that I think advance the common good of our country?" he said.