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PEORIA, Ill. — An Illinois Roman Catholic diocese whose bishop compared President Barack Obama's health care policies to actions taken by Adolf Hitler said Thursday that the comments, which prompted outside demands for an apology and investigation, were "historical context" in an ongoing debate over religious liberty.
Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky said during a Sunday homily at St. Mary's Cathedral in Peoria that Obama is following previous governments that "tried to force Christians to huddle and hide only within the confines of their churches."
"Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care," the (Peoria) Journal Star and Chicago Tribune quoted Jenky as saying during the homily. "In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda – now seems intent on following a similar path."
Diocese Chancellor Patricia Gibson told local media that Jenky "offered historical context and comparisons as a means to prevent a repetition of historical attacks upon the Catholic Church and other religions."
"We have currently not reached the same level of persecution," Gibson said. "But Bishop Jenky would say that history teaches us to be cautious. ... (He) is concerned that our government is truly treading on one of our most dear freedoms, which is religious freedom."
Calls to the diocese from The Associated Press rang unanswered Thursday afternoon, and Gibson did not immediately respond to an email request for further comment.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, meanwhile, filed a formal complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the diocese, suggesting Jenky may have crossed a line that put the church's tax-exempt status in jeopardy.
The group noted that in addition to the comments about Hitler and Obama, Jenky went on to tell those gathered Sunday that, "This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries – only excepting our church buildings – could easily be shut down."
"No rational person could believe the bishop was doing anything but saying vote against Obama," said the group's executive director, Barry Lynn.
Federal law prohibits churches and other tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing or opposing specific political candidates, but churches are allowed to engage in a wide range of political activities and the IRS rarely revokes a church's tax-exempt status.
The Anti-Defamation League also called on Jenky to apologize for his comments. Regional Director Lonnie Nasatir said Thursday that the bishop needs a history lesson on "religious intolerance and anti-Semitism fostered in society" by Hitler and Stalin.
Jenky's comments came a few days after the nation's Roman Catholic Bishops called for a national campaign in defense of religious liberty and urged resistance to laws church officials considered unjust. The bishops said Catholics must work to change recent state and federal laws church leaders believe violate religious freedom.
The highest-profile clash has been over the mandate in the Obama administration's health care overhaul that most employers cover birth control costs for workers. The White House has offered a compromise for church-affiliated groups such as hospitals and universities, but bishops have said the changes don't go far enough.