ANNAPOLIS, MD, November 17, 2011 ( – In a wide-ranging statement on the erosion of religious freedom released on November 9, the Catholic bishops of Maryland argued that religious liberty in the United States “is being silently and subtly eroded.”

Washington Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Baltimore Apostolic Administrator Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, and Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly said “the right to exercise our faith and follow our conscience in all aspects of our lives is a right increasingly viewed with hostility.”

They cited examples of increasing restrictions on religious liberty, noting in particular the city of Baltimore’s ordinance that required pro-life pregnancy centers to post on their doors that they do not offer or refer for abortions or birth control services.

“The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns is the kind of charitable organization that public officials should promote,” the bishops wrote. “Yet simply because the Center has a pro-life mission, it was targeted by a 2009 Baltimore ordinance that subjected it and other pro-life pregnancy centers to compelled speech requirements. No similar restrictions were placed on abortion clinics.”

The bishops explain that Maryland’s 40 pregnancy resource centers (including the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns) together freely serve about 30,000 pregnant women a year.

They were first targeted in the Maryland General Assembly in 2008, when a bill would have forced them to tell clients that they are not required to provide “factually accurate information.” That bill failed, but in November 2009 the Baltimore City Council passed a bill regulating the speech of pro-life centers by requiring them to post a sign listing services they do not provide (abortion and contraception) or face a daily fine. The Montgomery County Council soon approved a similar regulation.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s ordinance in March 2010, saying that the law violates First Amendment protections.

A federal court subsequently declared the Baltimore ordinance unconstitutional, and the Montgomery County law was enjoined by a court that found that it too was largely unconstitutional.

“Sadly, the experience of the Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns is not an isolated one,” say the bishops. “Efforts to restrict the rights of individuals and institutions because of their religious or moral beliefs are on the rise here in Maryland and around the nation.

The bishops’ statement also mentions attacks on conscience rights of U.S. health care workers and facilities who oppose abortion; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ efforts to mandate that all private health insurance plans cover surgical sterilization procedures and birth control, including IUD, “morning-after” pills and abortion-inducing drugs; and the attack on traditional marriage by the introduction of same-sex “marriage” legislation.

The bishops point out that the recognition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is based not on a social prejudice, but rather provides “the best possible environment for the children who will become society’s next generation.”

“Efforts to alter society’s longstanding definition of marriage distort this important reality. Moreover, and despite protestations to the contrary, they infringe upon the religious liberties of individuals and institutions that acknowledge heterosexual marriage not only as a fact of nature but also as an article of faith,” the bishops state.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief,” they conclude.

The Maryland Bishops’ statement, titled “Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland: A Statement from the Catholic Bishops of Maryland” is available in both an interactive and static version from the Maryland Catholic Conference website.