The Archdiocese of Washington today joined a rush of Catholic lawsuits around the country this week challenging the Department of Health and Human Services mandate on the inclusion of contraception in health care plans beginning August 2013. In California, however, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton expressed some guarded concerns about the opening of this latest front in the U.S. bishops’ continuing religious liberty campaign. Bishop Blaire is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and a member of the U.S.C.C.B. Administrative Committee which approved the "Fortnight of Freedom" campaign.
“The bishops that I am in contact with in California are strong supporters of the importance of defending and strengthening religious liberty in our country,” Bishop Blaire said. “I do think there are probably some different concerns with how it is being done,” he added.
According to Bishop Blaire, attorneys for California dioceses “did have some concerns with this strategy,” expressed a desire for more consultation and worried about possible legislative and judicial repercussions because of it in California. He explained that California diocese had already gone unsuccessfully down the judicial path in challenging government mandates on contraception and insurance coverage.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not a party to the lawsuits. Several were filed initially by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the most recent suits have been brought on behalf of 44, so far, Catholic dioceses, universities and other entities in 12 different federal jurisdictions in coordination with pro bono attorneys from the law firm of Jones Day.
Bishops Blaire acknowledged that “there is a concern among some bishops that there ought to have been more of a wider consultation” regarding overall strategy on the religious liberty question. “And I say that with some hesitation,” he added, “because the California bishops very strongly support whatever action has to be taken to promote religious liberty.
“The question is what is our focus as bishops and that we have opportunity to clarify our focus and that we are all in agreement on focus.” He said some bishops appear to be speaking exclusively on the mandate itself “that it is imposed … as a violation of [individual] conscience."
He said there are other bishops who see the crucial question as the religious liberty of the church itself and its freedom “to exercise her mission through her institutions.” He added, “I think that it’s important that there be a broader discussion of these issues [at the June U.S. bishops meeting in Atlanta]” so that U.S. bishops can clarify their message “and not allow it to be co-opted.”
Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.
“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”
Bishop Blaire believes discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
“I think our rhetoric has to be that of bishops of the church who are seeking to be faithful to the Gospel, that our one concern is that we make sure the church is free to carry out her mission as given to her by Christ, and that remains our focus.” If the bishops can maintain that focus, he said, “the people rally behind us,” but the bishops lose their support when the conflict is seen as too political.
Bishop Blaire said the upcoming meeting in Atlanta should offer an opportunity for a “thorough and careful discussion” about focus in the religious liberty campaign and Catholic “principles of cooperation that need to be applied in any kind of accommodation.”