WITNESSES TO FREEDOM | U.S. bishops continue efforts to raise awareness of religious liberty

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Four years ago when the Archdiocese of St. Louis launched a campaign for religious liberty, Archbishop Robert Carlson called it a great opportunity for Catholics to "build enthusiasm for this important cause."

"Religious liberty is our first, most cherished freedom," he said. "The threat the HHS mandate poses to the Catholic Church is no small matter. It is imperative that we act now to protect the freedoms upon which this country is based."

Things have changed since the U.S. bishops began its efforts to raise awareness of the importance of religious liberty, in light of the government's mandate, through the Department of Health and Human Services' mandate requiring most employers to provide contraception coverage in insurance plans.

This year, "Witnesses to Freedom" is the theme of the U.S. bishops' fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom, which opens June 21, the vigil of the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, and closes on Independence Day, July 4.

The opening Mass will be celebrated at 7 p.m. (Eastern time) in Baltimore at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori as the principal celebrant and the homilist.

"The threats to religious freedom are more subtle in the West; many people don't even perceive them; they happen bureaucratically, or legislatively, or judicially," said Archbishop Lori, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. "Whereas in other parts of the world ... it's bloody, violent, overt, but in both cases it's a denial of the rights of conscience ..."

The closing Mass will be celebrated at noon (Eastern time) the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington will be the principal celebrant, and Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik will be the homilist.

"Zubik" is the name given to the court case brought by many Catholic and other religious entities, including the Pittsburgh Diocese, to challenge the federal requirement that all employers, including most religious employers, provide employee health coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients even if they are morally opposed to such coverage.

The legal challenge, which the U.S. Supreme Court sent back to the lower courts May 16, has been a flashpoint in the U.S. church's fight on religious liberty issues.

According to the USCCB, the Fortnight for Freedom is "based on love of country and of liberty ... (to) "encourage Catholics, other Christians and all people of goodwill to set aside two weeks to reflect on religious freedom."

The annual observance also gets to the heart of what Pope Francis said on his visit to the United States in September, the USCCB said, noting the pope "encouraged us to nurture, promote and defend the precious gift of religious freedom."

This year the USCCB — along with Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College in the Diocese of Lancashire, England — is coordinating a U.S. tour of relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher to promote respect for religious liberty. Both were executed by King Henry VIII for their Catholic beliefs. The relics will go to Miami, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Washington.

In addition, the USCCB is highlighting the Christian witness of 14 women and men — one each day of the fortnight observance. (See related.)

"Reflecting on the lives of these great men and women can show us how we might serve as witnesses to freedom today," the USCCB stated about the 2016 Fortnight for Freedom. "It is remarkable to see the witness of so many martyrs throughout the history of the church who love the land and people of their birth, even as they are being persecuted. We can emulate this in our work today to promote religious freedom in the U.S., as it is of a piece with our efforts to contribute to the good of all Americans."

Information about the fortnight and resources to plan local observances are at www.Fortnight4Freedom.com.

The USCCB suggests several ways for parishes to celebrate the fortnight, including by holding a prayer vigil for religious freedom, organizing a study group on religious freedom issues and hosting a parish picnic to celebrate religious freedom. 

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