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Lori to take religious freedom message to Washington

As Catholic institutions across the country sue the Obama administration over new health insurance rules, Baltimore's new archbishop is scheduled to speak in Washington this week at a conference focusing on "Rising Threats to American Religious Freedom."

Archbishop William E. Lori, who was installed this month as the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, said he would discuss "the roots of our own nation's tradition of respect for religious freedom" — including the roles of Marylanders John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore, and his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lori chairs the committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was created to challenge new rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services that require employers — including Catholic schools, hospitals and charities — to give workers access to insurance that covers birth control.

He is scheduled to speak Thursday at the National Religious Freedom Conference, hosted by a conservative Washington think tank and described by organizers as "a diverse assembly of about 200 religious leaders, elected officials, and federal and state policy experts."

"I will certainly reference how the church's teaching on religious liberty and our nation's tradition of respect for religious liberty fit together very, well," Lori said. "And why it would be important not just for believers, but indeed for the common good of society, to make sure that we as a nation go out of our way to respect religious liberty and not allow it to be compromised — even when we're talking about religious teachings that might be unpopular or countercultural, or the religious views of a minority."

In federal lawsuits filed Monday, the University of Notre Dame, the Archdiocese of New York and other Catholic institutions said the new health insurance rules violate their constitutionally protected freedom of religion.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is writing rules for the administration's health care overhaul, initially required employers to pay for coverage of contraception. After Catholics and others objected, the administration offered a modification that would require insurers to pay for the coverage.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the modification does not resolve its concerns. The administration says it is still discussing the rule with religious leaders.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore did not join in the lawsuits.

"In this time of transition, it's very difficult to do the preparatory work that's necessary to engage in that type of litigation," the new archbishop said. But he said he "applauded the courage and the generosity of the dioceses and health care institutions and universities … who have decided to file suit in order to protect our First Amendment rights."

Lori called it "a noble struggle."

"We are not defending religious liberty for any partisan purpose," he said. "Our struggles at the present time are not of our own choosing. The timing is certainly not of our own choosing. We're engaging in this because we simply want the freedom to continue our amazing works of charity and education – and they're massive – but to do them in a way that is faithful to the teachings that inspired them in the first place."

The think tank sponsoring the conference, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, will give Lori its 2012 American Religious Freedom Award for his "gracious-but-vigorous defense of religious liberty in the face of increasing hostility and legal and policy challenges."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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