A challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception is one of the main planks of a statement released by the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops — and it has become one of its central talking points.

Catholic Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, of Springfield, Ill., said the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom isn’t a time for political activism.

But a challenge to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception is one of the main planks of a statement released by the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops — and it has become one of its central talking points.

Last month, the diocese and Catholic Charities filed suit against HHS, with Paprocki noting that the mandate was “an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference.”

Although the Obama administration allowed an exemption for churches, church officials argue that the definition of the term “religious employer” is so restrictive that it excludes Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies — who would have to, they further argue, only serve and employ Catholics.

While Paprocki isn’t backing down from the fray, he noted the Fortnight for Freedom, which begins June 21 and continues through July 4, is a time for prayer, learning and raising consciences about the notion of freedom of religion.

“I’ve had people write and suggest that we ought to be organizing rallies and demonstrations,” Paprocki said recently from Atlanta while attending the conference’s last summer meeting session on June 15. “I don’t see the Fortnight as a political initiative.

“I admit it does get complicated when you’re taking issue with government officials and you’re doing it in an election year.”

Some have suggested that the Fortnight is a coalescence of efforts to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election. But Paprocki said “that isn’t the intention at all.”

“We would hope the Obama administration would rescind the mandate.

“As it is right now, the administration is forcing us to look at other alternatives,” said Paprocki.

Those “alternatives” might be upsetting for the majority of Catholics and others, Paprocki said, especially if the mandate ordered Catholic hospitals to do abortions.

“The question at hand is, can the government order people to do anything that’s against their conscience?”

The USCCB statement drafted by the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, of which Paprocki is a member, also takes on narrowing state immigration laws, discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services and the ending of Catholic foster care and adoption services.

Last summer, Catholic Charities organizations in Illinois were informed that the state wouldn’t re-up contracts for the charities to provide foster care and adoption services because it believed they didn’t comply with the state’s civil union law.

“This is more than a Catholic issue,” Paprocki said. “Other religions should take note of other points if the government impinges upon them.”

Steven Spearie can be reached at spearie@hotmail.com or at 622-1788.

On the ‘Net:
To read the full text of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” or to learn more about the Fortnight for Freedom, go to www.usccb.org or www.dio.org.