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Bishops’ Group: Religious Freedom Under Siege

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Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York (center) wrote a letter explaining the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, which he says was spurred by the Obama administration’s recent “attacks” on religious freedom.

"The church sees a ratcheting up on the part of the government in these areas as examples of violations of religious liberty," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference.

In his letter, Dolan also criticized federal requirements that could require a Catholic charitable organization to provide abortion and contraception services to the trafficking victims it serves. Additionally, the archbishop raised concerns about condom distribution in HIV-prevention programs abroad, as well as an upcoming Supreme Court case on the separation of church and state in which the Justice Department has argued that churches should be required to follow anti-discrimination hiring laws.

Only one policy mentioned in the letter did not come directly from the administration: the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, where Dolan is archbishop. He has called that law unjust, immoral and an "ominous threat" to American society.

Given Dolan's history on the issue, gay-rights activists say the new religious liberty committee is just another way for the archbishop to continue his efforts against the gay and lesbian community.

"In fact, there is no threat to the Catholic Church's right to advocate whatever they want with regards to their beliefs," the blog "Lez Get Real," which closely follows policies affecting gays and lesbians, wrote on Friday.

Walsh disagreed, saying "an intentional anti-religious hostility" has been building in recent years and that the most glaring examples of it come from the administration. In addition to lobbying, the religious liberty committee will be tasked with educating the public about that idea.

"We'll bring the issue to the fore," Walsh said. "We're not hiring your K Street lobbyists. We'll hire a constitutional lawyer who can really look carefully at these issues and hire a policy advocacy person who can advocate the church's position."

In the letter, Dolan also criticizes Obama directly, saying the bishops' previous efforts to reach out to the president have been ignored. The creation of this committee could be one way to apply pressure on Obama to meet with and consult the Catholic bishops.

"I have offered to meet with the President to discuss these concerns and to impress upon him the dire nature of these actions by [the] government," Dolan wrote.

In April, Obama hosted an Easter prayer breakfast for religious leaders. Dolan was not invited, but other Catholic leaders who are members of the bishops’ conference attended. Also present was Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association and one of a group of nuns that publicly defied the bishops by backing the president during the health care debate.

Clarification: Oct. 4, 2011

The online version of this story was updated to clarify that Sister Carol Keehan was one of several Catholic leaders, including members of the bishops’ conference, who attended the president’s Easter prayer breakfast in April.

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