WASHINGTON, D.C., February 17, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – As religious leaders – including a bishop, ordained ministers, and a rabbi – testified before a House committee that the HHS birth control mandate violates their religious liberty, Democratic congressman Gerry Connolly burst into a three-minute soliloquy accusing them of being “complicit in the trampling of freedom.”

The House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on the health care mandate yesterday morning entitled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

“I have to assume each of you gentlemen came here in good faith, but surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that you’re being used for a political agenda,” Rep. Connolly accused. “Maybe you’re willingly being used, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s in your heart.”

“I think this is a shameful exercise, and I am very sad that you have chosen to participate and be used the way you’re being used,” he told members of the first panel, which included a Catholic bishop, two representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and a rabbi from Yeshiva University.

“Here you are being asked to testify about your rights being trampled on – an overstatement if there ever was one,” Connolly said. “Your participation on the panel makes you complicit in of course the trampling of freedom, because we were denied, on this side of the aisle, any witness who might have a differing point of view.”

The committee’s Republican majority and Democratic minority clashed bitterly in the days leading up to the hearing over the nature of the hearing and the number of witnesses Democrats should be able to call. Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-CA, said the hearings were devoted exclusively to religious liberty, while minority members wanted to focus the hearings on contraception.

In an impassioned speech, Connolly said to the Christian leaders assembled to testify, “This is a panel designed – with your conscious participation or not – to try one more time to embarrass the president of the United States and his administration by overstating an issue which is sacred to all Americans, religious freedom.” Accusing his colleagues of “political demagoguery in an election year,” Connolly said, “men and women of the cloth it seems to me ought to run, not walk, away from that line.”

He also criticized South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy for asking if the panelists would go to prison before violating their consciences.

When asked,  Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport replied, “We are not going to violate our conscience.” Dr. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missour Synod agreed, “Yes, I would [go to jail], clearly.” Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary said, “I’d like to be in his cell.”

Later in the hearing, Dr. Mitchell told the committee, “Tens of thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, would be willing to spend a night in jail for the preservation of religious liberty.”

“These guys are either going to have to go to jail because they won’t violate their religious beliefs,” Gowdy said, “or the hospitals and the schools are going to close, which means government is gonna get bigger, because they’re going to have to fill the void when you guys quit doing it – and maybe that’s what they wanted all along.”

That assertion was “beyond the pale,” Connolly said. “As if people are going to jail on this. Shame. Everybody knows that’s not true.” Rep. Lacy Clay, D-MO, agreed the hearings had sunk to a level of “disingenuousness.”

Some members later apologized to the religious leaders for their colleagues’ behavior. Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma joked, “This is not something probably you anticipated a year ago to think, gosh wouldn’t it be great sometime in 2012 if I could go be on a Congressional hearing and just get berated publicly?”

The religious leaders responded graciously under fire – Rep. Connolly asked no questions of them – but continually reasserted the seriousness of eroding the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion..

Bp. Lori said the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has an ad hoc committee on religious liberty “because we have massive concerns about religious liberty at the state and national levels. Massive concerns.”

Dr. Ben Mitchell of Union University warned the Obama administration was “clearly hollowing out the idea of religious liberty.”

Religious institutions that refuse to comply with the mandate to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as part of their health care coverage face fines that could force them to close their doors. Dr. Harrison said his preliminary research showed his denomination could face “tens of millions of dollars” in fines if it loses its grandfathered status in the health care agreement and is forced to provide abortifacients. At the second panel Dr. William K. Thierfelder, the president of Belmont Abbey College calculated it would cost the college – associated with a monastery – $300,000 a year if it refused to comply. His college is suing the Obama administration for violating the First Amendment.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University said, although he had no objection to contraception or the health care bill, he worried what future government edicts might affect members of his own religion. “When I see the religious leaders of one pretty large religious community in this country say this government mandate is seeking to force us to violate a tenet of our faith, and see then the admininistration say, well that’s too bad, that makes small denominations or faiths in this country begin to wonder” what may be in store, he said. “Not only is this an outrageous violation of one particular faith’s religious freedom, it’s quite frightening to all of us who care about our religious freedom.”

He said testified only because“the president and the administration just do not seem sensitive to religious concerns.”

Seeking to balance the pitched nature of the hearings. Dr. Harrison said, “I really loathe the partisan nature of this discussion…I personally get on my knees every single morning in my office, and I pray for this president and for my government.”

“This provision is draconian,” he said.