WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. Catholic bishops dispatched their new point man on religious freedom to warn Congress on Wednesday (Oct. 26) that religious people risk being labeled as “bigots” without greater conscience protections.
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of a new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops have been vilified for their religious beliefs against abortion, gay marriage and birth control.

“If the label of `bigot’ sticks to our church and many other churches—especially in court, under the Constitution—because of their teaching on marriage, the result will be church-state conflicts for many years to come,” Lori told the House Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Lori was one of three witnesses called to testify on the state of religious liberty in the U.S. While all three agreed that religious liberty in America is threatened, they differed over whose religious liberty is most at risk.

“The most imminent and egregious threats to religious freedom today are those that are suffered by members of minority faiths and nonbelievers in this country,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Lynn cited efforts to block mosque construction projects, and noted that under the White House’s faith-based initiative, organizations can discriminate in hiring members of another faith while receiving government funds.

“The equation changes dramatically if federal funds enter the picture,” said Lynn.

Colby M. May, a senior attorney from the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, echoed Lori’s concern that efforts to legalize same-sex marriage infringe on the rights of those who believe in traditional marriage.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., was largely sympathetic to Lori’s and May’s complaints. “What is the impact that that failure to make exceptions for religious beliefs is having on the church?” he asked Lori.

Lori noted that Illinois church agencies have been barred from foster care and adoption services because they refused to place children with same-sex couples under the state’s new civil unions law.

Lori, who lost a bid to block gay marriage in his state, said belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman “bears no resemblance to racial discrimination,” which is why laws can require adoption agencies to serve interracial couples but not to serve gays or lesbians.

Lori also said that proposed rules by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to mandate insurance coverage of contraceptives violate the rights of church-affiliated institutions.

But Lynn countered that creating larger religious exemptions to the insurance mandate could harm the rights of innocent third parties. “The more expansive an exemption, the more likely it is to violate the Constitution,” he said.

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