Leaders from the nation's two largest religious bodies -- the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention -- released an interfaith letter calling for expanded freedom of conscience protections in response to the federal requirement for employers to provide contraceptives and morning-after drugs through their health insurance plans.
Although the Catholic Church is the only major religion to object to contraceptives, many of more than 100 signatures were from evangelical traditions that oppose abortion and view morning-after drugs as abortifacients. But they stressed that their concern was religious liberty, no matter what it applied to.
"We believe the doctrines of our respective faiths require something of us beyond the walls of our churches, synagogues, temples and other places of worship," the letter said.
The contraceptive mandate "is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining -- or casting aside -- religious doctrine. This should trouble every American."
Among those to sign was Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.
"I think all of us should be standing together believing that the government doesn't have the right to dictate policies where the church has a contrary understanding of morality," he said.
"The Catholic Church would forbid contraception, we would not. But we would expect the government to honor their religious conscience."
Despite the letter, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the bishops are still studying the final federal rule released last week and had no comment on it yet.
"The letter has been in the works for weeks. Today was the day that worked for all the schedules involved," said Don Clemmer in the bishops' office for media relations.
Houses of worship have always been exempt. The final version attempts to answer objections from some religious bodies. It says that religious institutions such as hospitals and universities can opt out of the disputed coverage, and that their employees can obtain it directly from their insurance company free of charge. Although the federal rule promises that religious employers will not have to refer or pay for birth control coverage, critics believe it will still come from their premiums. They also object to treating religiously affiliated institutions differently from houses of worship, including when they are covered by the same insurance.
More than 200 religious institutions and individuals have filed 61 federal lawsuits. Tuesday's letter says that owners of secular businesses who have religious objections to birth control should also be exempt from the rule.
The main presenters were Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops' religious liberty committee, and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Their churches have, respectively, 68 million and 16 million members. Presiding Bishop Gary Stevenson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the fourth largest religious body, with 6.1 million members, also signed.
Interfaith signing came from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of Scientology and Rabbi Aryeh Spero, an Orthodox Jewish conservative radio host.
A number of religious bodies, including the 7.6 million member United Methodist Church, are on record supporting the birth control mandate.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. ___