WASHINGTON, D.C. December 7, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says she respects her bishops’ opinions when they discuss scripture or morality, but when it comes to their efforts to protect the rights of Catholics to follow their church’s teachings in law she considers them simply “lobbyists” with whom she has her disagreements.

Pelosi, who describes herself as “a devout Catholic,” told a reporter from CNSNews.com at a press conference recently, “I have great respect for our bishops when they are my pastor. As lobbyists in Washington D.C., we have some areas of disagreement.”

She was responding to a question about a Department of Health and Human Services regulation that goes into effect on August 1, 2012, requiring every health insurance plan to cover sterilization and contraceptives (including abortifacients) free of charge. Such practices violate Roman Catholic teaching, yet millions of Catholics will have to pay for them or refuse to carry health insurance.

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In September the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops issued a bulletin insert stating that the mandate “poses an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom.” (Emphasis in original.) It asked Catholics to contact HHS.

Pelosi’s statements come shortly after she told The Washington Post, “I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it ...but they [Catholics] have this conscience thing” about abortion.

At last week’s press conference, Pelosi stated, “it’s important for women to have the opportunity to have full reproductive health options available to them and their insurance,” although she supported “the waiver that is there for the churches now.”

The birth control mandate’s religious exemption – the “waver” referred to by Pelosi - applies only to “religious employers,” meaning organizations that primarily hire people of the same faith as well as serve people of the same faith – a narrow definition that would exclude the vast majority of religious organizations.

By this definition, the USCCB has observed, “the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry.”

Pelosi’s depiction of the bishops as Beltway influence-peddlers riled Geoffrey Surtees of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a legal organization dedicated to preserving religious freedom. He wrote, “Religious leaders are not lobbyists when they petition the government to protect the dignity of marriage or the rights of the unborn. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no lobbyist on account of his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Pelosi’s characterization, Surtees wrote, is “quite simply, insulting. And not just to Catholics. It’s an insult to all citizens who believe that religious freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment, is a fundamental right and governing principle of our constitutional order.”

Pelosi has publicly misrepresented Roman Catholic theology in the past. In an August 2008 appearance on Meet the Press, Pelosi said, “as an ardent, practicing Catholic,” she had studied the Church’s belief on the moment life begins “for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. St. Augustine said at three months.  We don’t know.”

She claimed the Roman Catholic Church has only believed life begins at conception for “like maybe 50 years or something like that.”

Her comments triggered a torrent of responses from Catholics defending their faith, and forced a “cordial” but direct response from George Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco.

Pelosi won an award from Planned Parenthood in 2010.

The former Speaker of the House had previously likened Catholic bishops to lobbyists in January 2010. “When I speak to my archbishop in San Francisco and his role is to try to change my mind on the subject, well then he is exercising his pastoral duty to me as one of his flock,” she said. “When they call me on the phone here to talk about, or come to see me about an issue, that’s a different story. Then they are advocates, and I am a public official, and I have a different responsibility.”