Faith leaders vow to fight threats to religious liberties in public sphere

Leaders from a variety of faith backgrounds, politicians and educators met Thursday in Washington, D.C., for the National Religious Freedom Conference: Rising Threats to Religious Freedom, an event that organizers say is part of a battle against the trampling of religious liberties in the public sphere.

"This debate is not just about contraceptives, but about coercion. It's not about Catholics it's about conscience," Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention said during one of the panel discussions. He went on to say, "it's about principle, not pelvic politics."

Former Utah Gov. Michael Levitt, also a former Health and Human Services secretary, said of the conference, "This is the uniting of the faith community to declare that we're going to fight back to defend religious freedom."

The conference outlined three major threats to religious freedom: The first is the government mandate that religious institutions, such as hospitals and universities, act contrary to their conscience by offering birth control coverage to their employees. The second is what religious leaders say is a threat to the autonomy of religious organizations to choose their own leaders.

The third issue, a key one, is religious principles in in everyday life, like pharmacists who object for moral reasons to carrying what believers equate to abortion-causing drugs or religious student groups being marginalized on school campuses. One example of the latter is the fight at Vanderbilt University over its non-discrimination policy, requiring student religious groups be open to anyone, even those who don't hold to their beliefs.

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    Conference participants see a prejudice that affects all religions.

    "We need to find a way to bridge not only the faith divide but also the political divide to try to find a way where everybody can enjoy religious liberty," Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, said. "It doesn't have to be a zero sum game. Some people's rights do not have to come at the expense of other peoples rights. We can find a way to make it a win-win situation for everybody."

    The conference comes in the wake of a federal lawsuit filed by more than 40 Catholic institutions over the health care law that mandates the church offer institutional employees contraceptive coverage and other benefits that go against Catholic teaching. Churches already are exempt from the mandate.

    Cardinal Timothy Dolan said the church is pushing forward, looking at all options.

    "We are not going to give up dialogue with them. Who knows, maybe the lawsuits will make some progress, but so far we haven't seen any mitigation. Mitigation that the administration offered us back in February didn't help us much, because we are self-insured and it didn't touch those straight-jacketing exemptions."

    As a way of moving forward, the conference announced plans to create religious freedom caucuses in every state, an effort designed to bridge the gap between politics and religion.