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Coalition of religious groups signs open letter for religious liberty

A diverse coalition of religious leaders signed an open letter to the Obama administration titled "Standing Together for Religious Freedom."
A diverse coalition of religious leaders signed an open letter to the Obama administration titled "Standing Together for Religious Freedom."

A diverse coalition of religious leaders, including the presiding bishop of the LDS Church, signed an open letter to "all Americans" saying they are not done fighting against health care reform's birth control mandate and its infringement on religious liberty.

Acknowledging they don't all agree on religious teachings about contraception, they are united against government requiring any faith or its followers to violate those teachings.

More than 100 national religious leaders and scholars released their letter last Tuesday titled "Standing Together for Religious Freedom," calling on the Obama administration and Congress to respect conscience rights and religious freedom.

"While the mandate is a specific offense, it represents a greater fundamental breach of conscience by the federal government," the letter stated. "The (Health and Human Services) is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining — or casting aside — religious doctrine. This should trouble every American."

The letter comes four days after the Obama administration released its final offer to accommodate nonprofit religious objectors to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employers provide workers birth control through employee health care plans. The accommodation allows nonprofits like religious-affiliated schools to hire a third party to administer the benefit.

The administration said the compromise strikes a balance between the concerns of religious nonprofits and the health care needs of women.

But those who gathered for a news conference Tuesday to announce their letter said only a full exemption, like that offered to houses of worship, will satisfy their concerns that the mandate still puts some faiths in a position of violating their conscience.

"The government tells us they have resolved our moral objections with a paperwork sleight of hand on the insurance forms. We are not so easily hypnotized by such parlor games," Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the National Review.

The SBC joined with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to spearhead the letter.

"As the Catholic bishops have said from the very beginning, the underlying issue with the HHS Mandate is not about any specific teaching. In fact, other signatories on the letter do not share our view on contraception and probably disagree with us in many other ways, but they understand the core religious freedom issue at stake here," said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

That's the reason The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints signed on through Presiding Bishop Gary Stevenson.

“As Archbishop Lori noted in his comments, this group represents a wide range of faiths, not all of which are affected equally by the HHS mandate," the LDS Church said in a statement Wednesday. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agrees that the religious freedom implications of this legislation are significant and is happy to join with other faiths in expressing that view.”

Others who joined in the letter include the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Orthodox Christian and Jewish leaders, as well as scholars and heads of faith-based institutions and civil rights organizations.

Blogger Mark Silk took exception to the fact that no mainline Protestant faith signed on nor did anyone from the Muslim, Buddhist or Sikh traditions.

"If you compare, say, the coalition that got the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed 20 years ago to Archbishop Lori’s 'standing together' crowd, what you’ll see is the difference between a united front and right-wing flapping."

Whether the letter will force the administration or Congress to change course is anyone's guess.

The Obama administration announced last Tuesday that it has bumped the compliance date for employers to provide coverage mandated under the ACA by one year, to January 2015. That provides some relief to the religious owners of some for-profit companies, some 32 of which have sued the government over the mandate for violating their rights to practice their religious beliefs.

There are also bills before the House and Senate to grant broad exemptions from the contraception mandate to those who claim that providing contraception through employee health plans violates their religious beliefs. But there has been no indication the proposals will get a hearing.

Moore told reporters at the National Press Club last Tuesday that the coalition won't stay silent until its religious rights are respected, the Baptist Press reported.

"We are not going to back down on this question. I think the government has been waiting us out for some time, thinking that Roman Catholics and evangelicals and others who are opposed to these things will somehow go away. We're not going away."