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Advisory Memo To Journalists

June 27, 2012

Memo to journalists

We became aware on June 7, that news media received a memo from John Gehring, casting aspersions on the Catholic bishops and their educational project on religious liberty, the Fortnight for Freedom.

Mr. Gehring is Catholic Program Director of “Faith in Public Life,” a group founded with help from a pro-abortion group long directed by John Podesta called the Center for American Progress (CAP); like the CAP it has received funding from billionaire atheist George Soros. These do not seem like eminent qualifications for telling bishops how to guide the Church.

In his memo, Mr. Gehring juxtaposes what he calls the bishops’ “Fictions” with his “Facts” – and he provides the media with “questions to ask Catholic bishops” that he apparently thinks are embarrassing.In fact we’re happy to answer those questions in this memo.But we’ll begin by showing how fiction and fact is mixed up in his account.

Gehring: It’s especially important to scrutinize the bishops’ campaign because of “the charged political backdrop of this high-profile initiative -- five months before a presidential election.”

Fact: Mr. Gehring should have noticed that the bishops’ key insert for Church bulletins during the Fortnight for Freedom lists seven recent threats to religious liberty – only two of which have anything to do with the President or his administration.None of our materials, of course, say anything about an election.The Fortnight for Freedom responds to a broader trend in our society: We are in danger of forgetting our nation’s great legacy of religious freedom, and of neglecting to defend such freedom for everyone when that is most needed.Even regarding the HHS contraceptive mandate – the only one of the seven threats that Mr. Gehring seems to notice – the timing of the regulatory process and resulting controversy has been determined by the Administration, not by the Church.

Gehring: The bishops have accused the Administration of waging “a war on religion” and “a war on the Catholic Church.”

Fact: Though he puts these phrases in direct quotes,Gehring produces noevidence of this. Instead he pulls a bait-and-switch, citing (and misusing) other quotes.For example:

Gehring accuses Cardinal Dolan of saying that the Administration is “‘strangling’ the Catholic Church.”What Cardinal Dolan said was: “The exemption given to the church [by the HHS mandate] is so strangling and so narrow and it’s also presumptuous that a bureau of the federal government is attempting to define for the church the extent of its ministry and ministers… It’s almost like we’re being punished for the fact that we serve a lot of people.” The Cardinal was noting that the narrow religious exemption is “strangling” the Church’s ability to live out its mission, because a Church institution can’t be exempt from the morally objectionable coverage unless (among other things) it stops serving people of other faiths – thus it must violate one call of the gospel or the other.To point out this Hobson’s choice is simply to recognize reality.

Gehring says Bishop Jenky of Peoria has “compared Obama administration policies to those of Hitler and Stalin.”Actually Bishop Jenky expressed concern that the federal government may have begun to distrust the churches as rivals to its own claims to authority – as happened with many European leaders of the past century and more, whether of the mainstream right and left (Otto von Bismarck and Georges Clemenceau) or of the extremist right and left (Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin).But then, “Bishop warns against government trend toward a century-old European view of religion that, for all their other vast differences, was shared by Hitler and Georges Clemenceau” would not make a racy headline.

Finally, Gehring says Bishop Cordileone has expressed worry about the “despotism” of the HHS mandate.Bishop Cordileone was citing an 1886 speech by Cardinal James Gibbons that said the U.S. has “liberty without license, authority without despotism.” Noting recent attacks on the conscience rights of individual Americans, and on the right of religious institutions to serve the public without violating their teaching on marriage, he worried that we could be starting to move in the direction of license and despotism.”In this context the bishop did not mention the HHS mandate or the Administration -- and the conference at which he spoke distributed a list of ten recent threats to religious freedom, only three of which have anything to do with the Obama administration. Yet Gehring simply assumes that all this is a direct reference (and an overreaction) to one federal policy.

Gehring: The Obama administration has now provided a “wider religious exemption” to its contraceptive mandate, and the bishops initially welcomed this before “quickly moving the goalposts” so they could object to it and support the Blunt amendment in Congress.

Fact: There was no “moving of goalposts.”The bishops have voiced principled objection to coerced contraceptive coverage as part of HHS’s “preventive services” mandate since 2010; they have supported exemptions from such mandates on moral or religious grounds for many years; and they have supported the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” (identical with the Blunt amendment) since December 2010.What happened on February 10, 2012 was that the bishops initially welcomed the Administration’s announcement that its incredibly narrow religious exemption would be broadened; but before the end of the day they saw the actual “final rule” from HHS, and found that the mandate and narrow exemption had been finalized “without change.”So “spin” gave way to grim reality.A widening of the exemption not only did not happen – it would actually now be illegal, unless a new rulemaking process were to nullify the current one.

Gehring: The “accommodation” to which the bishops objectmakes sure no religiously affiliated institution will have to pay for services that violate its moral beliefs or even refer employees for this coverage,” and so has been welcomed by Catholic Health Association and other Catholic groups.

Fact: No, the Catholic Health Association has objected to the proposed “accommodation,” as have others across the political spectrum, once they found that the coverage will ultimately be subsidized by premiums paid by employers and employees and that the Administration’s various proposals are unworkable.Religious employers are excluded from having to “provide” the coverage only in the sense that the decision about providing it to their own employees will be taken away from them by the government.And Gehring’s claim that the coverage will be provided only “if a woman employed by an objecting Catholic institution wants this coverage” is absolutely false: The Administration’s new notice says the coverage will be provided “automatically” to these women, and to their teenage children, even if the woman objects.So individual conscience rights as well as parents’ rights to guide their children in matters of sexuality are now also at risk.Gehring doesn’t notice that in this respect, the new advance notice promotes a more coercive policy than the original one he describes (which is now obsolete).The problems with the “accommodation” have been thoroughly explained in a recent comment letter and fact sheet from the USCCB.

Gehring: Covering contraception is nothing new for Catholic institutions because it is already required in 28 states.

Fact: This canard was thoroughly addressed in the USCCB’s August 2011 comment letter to HHS.The state mandates usually apply only to health plans that provide prescription drug coverage generally; only one state requires coverage of sterilization; the mandates can be side-stepped by self-insuring, or coming under federal ERISA standards; and only three states have a religious exemption as incredibly narrow as the HHS mandate.The federal government has the most inescapably draconian mandate and the narrowest religious exemption in the country.No, this is not “business as usual.”

Gehring: Most Americans and Catholics support the HHS mandate and reject the Church’s concerns.

Fact: The findings of public opinion polls are notoriously changeable and dependent on the wording of questions, but in fact many polls contradict Gehring’s claim.Majority or plurality opposition to the mandate and/or its application to religious institutions, among Catholics and the general public, has been seen in polls released between February and June by Rasmussen, CNN, Gallup, QEV Analytics, CBS News/New York Times, and Marist.In any case, our entire history of religious freedom in the United States has been aimed at defending the consciences of minorities against coercion by majorities.

Gehring’s Proposed Questions for Bishops

Now for the questions Mr. Gehring wants news media to ask of the bishops.

“Catholic organizations have received significant funding increases under the Obama administration. Doesn't this undercut your claims that the administration is ''strangling” the Catholic Church?”

We didn’t quite say that (see above).But we note that the claimed funding increases are for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011.The restrictive requirements that tend to exclude Catholic organizations from domestic and foreign service grants did not appear in federal grant documents until mid-2011, so 2012 would be the first year that is even relevant.In any case, the government grants are not gifts that signify how much the government likes the Catholic Church.Nor are they payments in exchange for our silence when our religious freedom is attacked elsewhere.Instead, they are payments in exchange for the delivery of human services, without profit.They are a sign only of the fact that the Church delivers human services more effectively and efficiently than others participating in a competitive process.

How much money is being spent on this religious liberty campaign and where is it coming from?”

This cannot be answered nationally because each diocese chooses its own activities and funding. But Gehring’s focus here is to discredit the national funding received from the Knights of Columbus, which has devoted many hundreds of millions of dollars to nonpartisan life-saving humanitarian goals, because that group’s current leader worked for a Republican president 25 years ago.This is an unwise objection for Faith in Public Life to raise, since its own staff of seven people includes: one person who came to the group directly from serving as communications director for a Democratic congressman and his election campaign; one who worked for various Democratic campaigns and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; two (including Gehring) who worked for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a blatantly partisan Soros-funded political initiative; and an executive director coming from the secular and partisan Center for American Progress.People in glass houses shouldn’t throw boomerangs.

In all of your religious liberty materials why is there no mention that it was a conservative Catholic, Supreme Court Justice Anton in Scalia, who wrote a major decision weakening religious liberty protections?”

As a start: (a) We don’t tag Supreme Court justices with religious and political labels to discredit them, (b) this decision in Employment Division v. Smith happened 22 years ago, and (c) we already have spent many years of litigation and legislative advocacy to counter its effects, with some success.Among other things, we helped enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 to restore federal protection of religion to the status it had before the Smith decision – and it is most likely under that law that the HHS mandate will be invalidated by federal courts.

Are you concerned that this religious liberty campaign is in danger of becoming politicized during an election year? Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, recently expressed concern that some groups ‘very far to the right’ are trying to use the conflict as ‘an anti-Obama campaign’."

Partisan misuse of such legitimate issues by other groups is indeed a concern, whether those others come from the right (as Bishop Blaire has properly warned) or from the left (as Mr. Gehring has exemplified).The solution is for the bishops to resist the distractions of those others and stay focused on the merits of the substantive issue, emphasizing the Fortnight for Freedom as a time for education, prayer, and action on the great gift of religious liberty.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference has argued there is now ‘a drive to neuter religion,’ but aren't your objections to the Obama administration disputes over policy issues not a culture war clash between Church and State?”

No.A dispute over whether existing government funding of contraception should be increased would be an example of a “dispute over policy issues.”But a dispute over whether the government will force religious employers to fund and facilitate contraception, even when they object to it in conscience, is a religious freedom dispute.Mr. Gehring simply ignores the element of government coercion, as do so many others who attempt to diminish the religious freedom aspect.In any event, the trend Cardinal Dolan describes goes well beyond the HHS mandate, or even this Administration.It also involves actions by state legislative and executive bodies, some courts, and powerful interest groups.

For example, the Administration has excluded the Catholic Church’s efforts to serve victims of human trafficking from federal support because of the Church’s religious and moral conviction not to promote abortion.Adding insult to injury, ACLU claims that such religious discrimination is not only permitted, but required, by the First Amendment—and a trial court recently agreed (and is being appealed).Similarly, the Administration has taken the position that the First Amendment affords no special protection for the hiring of ministers by religious organizations.Fortunately, this view was rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court as “remarkable” and “untenable.” At the state level, some states would criminalize ministry to undocumented immigrants as forbidden “harboring.”At the local level, religious groups are denied equal access to public facilities, which comparable secular groups could obtain without difficulty.No, something new and troubling has been happening, and to ignore that is to bury one’s head in the sand—or worse, to try to protect from criticism those who are fostering the trend.

Are you willing to sacrifice Catholic charities, colleges and hospitals if you don't get your way on the contraceptive mandate?”

We will keep fighting until we prevail.And if, in the meantime, any Church institutions are ever “sacrificed,” it will be the result of government action making it impossible for those Church institutions to continue to operate consistent with their religious beliefs.

Are you willing to drop all health insurance for your employees?”

Same answer.

Thank you for your attention to these observations. For more about the bishops’ religious freedom efforts, see and you have other questions feel free to contact the USCCB Office of Media Relations at

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Sr. Mary Ann Walsh
O: 202-541-3200
M: 301-325-7935

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