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BALTIMORE, November 13, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have promised to continue their fight against President Obama’s HHS mandate, which takes effect Jan. 1st, issuing a “special message” Wednesday at their annual General Assembly in Baltimore.

“As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom,” said the bishops’ message, which passed unanimously according to the conference’s release.

“We will continue our efforts in Congress and especially with the promising initiatives in the courts to protect the religious freedom that ensures our ability to fulfill the Gospel by serving the common good,” they added. 

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The bishops noted that they have a duty to proclaim the Gospel, including through ministries that “feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young.”

“Yet with its coercive HHS mandate, the government is refusing to uphold its obligation to respect the rights of religious believers,” the bishops write.

The HHS mandate requires employers to include abortifacients, sterilization, and contraception in their insurance packages. Organizations that do not comply are subject to a fine of $100 every day per employee, amounting to millions of dollars a year in many cases.

The bishops have highlighted three concerns with the mandate that they say remain unaddressed. First, its exemption excludes numerous Church ministries, and thus “reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship”; second, it forces those ministries to take a part in offering employees services that gravely violate Catholic moral teaching; and third, it includes no exemption for business owners.

“Not only does the mandate undermine our ministries’ ability to witness to our faith, which is their core mission, but the penalties it imposes also lay a great burden on those ministries, threatening their very ability to survive and to serve the many who rely on their care,” write the bishops.

The conference stopped short of saying they would refuse to comply with the law, however. The bishops have been unanimously opposed to the mandate but are divided over how to respond should their battle fail.

Some bishops have vowed to pay the fines the mandate would impose, and ultimately shut down their ministries, rather than comply with a law they deem unjust. But others have refused to go that far.

On Tuesday, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsiburgh and Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie testified in federal court, as part of their dioceses' lawsuits against the mandate, that they would not back down even if faced with fines.

“I would not be able to live with myself knowing that we're contradicting what we believe,” said Zubik, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley seemed to take a different position in an interview with the Boston Globe Tuesday, however, noting that “closing the institutions down is also an evil for us.”

As the Globe noted, however, O’Malley shut down his Catholic adoption agency in Boston when Massachusetts imposed a law requiring them to facilitate homosexual adoptions.

The bishops’ statement on Wednesday acknowledged the difficulty over how to respond.

“Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation,” they wrote. “We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbors, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences.”

“We remain grateful for the unity we share in this endeavor with Americans of all other faiths, and even with those of no faith at all. It is our hope that our ministries and lay faithful will be able to continue providing insurance in a manner consistent with the faith of our Church.”

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