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October 11, 2011

Conference of Catholic Bishops launches new organization to fight equality, preserve special treatment for religious entities

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has created a new DC-based lobbying group to fight what it calls an "unprecedented assault" on the right "to proclaim the truth of religious freedom." Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, announced the new campaign in a letter identifying the perceived threats to religious liberty that justified "a new moment in the history of our Conference."

Most of the declared threats were policies dealing with either lgbt rights or access to abortion and contraception. In addition to the new New York marriage equality law, the letter cites the Justice Department's decision to stop defending the constitutionality of DoMA. Even worse, the letter says,

the Department started filing briefs actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice.  If the label of "bigot" sticks to us—especially in court—because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result.

The Dolan letter also criticizes the HHS announcement that health insurance policies offered through new health reform systems would be required to cover birth control, federal rules that could require a Catholic charitable organization to provide abortion and contraception services to trafficking victims and condom distribution in HIV-prevention programs abroad, as well as the Justice Department argument in EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor that churches should be required to follow anti-discrimination in employment laws.

"We're not hiring your K Street lobbyists," Archbishop Dolan told Roll Call. "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."  

The lgbt blogosphere is full of news about right-wing religious nuts, some of them currently seeking the Republican nomination for President, spouting various now out-of-touch slogans about gay people being sick or evil.  It's easy to laugh and dismiss them. The USCCB's action, however, should not be dismissed or ridiculed. These people may be wrong, but - especially in Congress - they are credible, widely respected, and powerful. Not to mention financially capable of mounting a more sophisticated effort than the Family Research Councils of the world can dream of.

This creation of a permanent satellite advocacy organization, a commitment that marks another more reactionary step by the USCCB, an organization that has led advocacy efforts for poor people even as it has fought against reproductive rights for women and equality for lgbt people. Until last year, for example, the Conference was neutral on ENDA. It is now officially in opposition, and terminated its membership in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights over these issues.

With public opinion running in the opposite direction on their doctrines related to sexuality, religious conservatives are seeking to reframe the debate about lgbt equality - whether in the workplace or in marriage - in less invidious, more intellectually respectable terms. They want the public to see these disputes as being about lofty concepts of religious freedom rather than about using the power of the state to enforce their claims of moral superiority.  If only.

[Correction: This new entity is not the first permanent satellite advocacy group created by the USCCB; the Committee for a Human Life Amendment was created earlier.]


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