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Cardinal Blase Cupich Claire Chretien / LifeSiteNews

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 15, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted 132 to 53 today to approve the establishment of a permanent Standing Committee for Religious Liberty.

Five bishops abstained from voting. 

The USCCB formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for three years in September 2011. It was then extended for another three-year term. Today's vote was on making this committee a permanent part of the USCCB, funded independently of the conference and thus not affecting its budget.

The Committee will be under the USCCB's Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development. It will focus on domestic and international religious liberty. Its domestic efforts will especially emphasize the freedom of all people to serve others according to the tenets of their faith.

Religious liberty hadn't been at the forefront of the USCCB's spring 2017 meeting until this morning. Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to a presentation on the “Spirituality of Immigration” and a report from the Bishops' Working Group on Immigration Issues.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who chaired the Ad Hoc Committee, asked his brother bishops to make the Committee permanent. Lori said that while the HHS contraceptive mandate may be about to end, there are still other pressing threats to religious liberty.

The “most obvious reason” a permanent committee is needed “is that religious liberty remains under challenge,” said Lori. It's “likely that these challenges will intensify in years ahead.”

Regarding the HHS contraception mandate forcing religious employers to participate in the provision of contraception, Lori said, the fight isn't over.

“The end may be in sight, but victory is not assured,” he said. “We have to stay the course to ensure that this heavy burden to our ministries is lifted…even if the new [proposed] regulations are enacted, they may be only a temporary reprieve.”

A “future administration may well revive the contraceptive mandate along with its extraordinary fines and penalties,” Lori warned.

Lori also noted that another threat to religious freedom is “HHS issued a transgender mandate that would require doctors in Catholic hospitals” to help “biological men transition to women and vice versa.”

Also, the Supreme Court's imposition of same-sex “marriage” on the country “has raised a host of challenges,” said Lori.

Pope Francis-appointed Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago raised a red card in opposition to the vote during the debate. He didn't explicitly argue against the committee, but called into question whether the Committee would have proper funding. If it didn't have the proper funding, he asked, wouldn't it need a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority?

From left to right: Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Bishop Wilton Gregory, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Cardinal Blase Cupich, and another bishop

“This issue of religious freedom is so very important,” said Cupich, but “the Ad Hoc Committee's task was to deal with this issue domestically.” 

The Committee would continue to be “budget-neutral,” meaning its funding wouldn't come out of regular USCCB funding. Cupich questioned if it had enough financial backing.

The Ad Hoc Committee “has been able to function” from donations “to the tune of almost half a million dollars,” said Cupich. He wondered whether that would be able to continue.

Washington's Cardinal Donald Wuerl, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz argued in favor of making the Committee permanent. Dolan and Kurtz are both former USCCB presidents.

It would be part of the “fabric of our conference,” Wuerl said.

Dolan thanked Lori for his leadership. He said Catholic bishops around the world look to the U.S. bishops to be “real quarterbacks” for religious liberty. 

“Obviously, I'm for it [the permanent Committee], enthusiastically so,” said Dolan. “We need to be in the forefront of” defending religious liberty internationally, he said. He also said the bishops' defense of religious liberty helps with ecumenical dialogue and their pro-immigrant efforts. 

Burlington, Vermont Bishop Christopher Coyne said he didn't support making the Committee permanent because “money and funding can disappear for all kinds of reasons” and he was concerned about “optics.” He wondered if making the Committee permanent would be “sending out a message” that religious liberty is more of a priority for the bishops than immigration is, because its immigration committee is “evolving” into a “different place.”

He said he was “not in favor of the motion as it's presented now.”

Kurtz said the Committee is a chance for “a clear dialogue and even a clear teaching opportunity.”

Another Pope Francis-appointed Cardinal, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, argued against the Committee. 

“I'd like to respectfully disagree with the proposition” to make the Committee permanent, said Tobin. “I agree with Bishop Coyne that the timing of this is very unfortunate.”

As the “conference [is] ready to disband its Ad Hoc Committee dealing with the migration emergency,” the establishment of a Permanent Committee on Religious Liberty might send the wrong message about the bishops' priorities, Tobin said. Migration is “actually a crisis that is growing stronger each day.” 

Tobin suggested the defense of religious liberty “can be handled by the domestic policy committee” and internationally, “can be handled by” the USCCB's international committee and efforts. 

“I'm not convinced that there is a need at this time to establish this committee,” concluded Tobin.

Toward the end of the debate, Cupich again brought up questions about whether it was acceptable for a majority to vote on the establishment of a permanent committee if there wasn't a permanent funding committment from the independent sources.

“Can we take a vote on establishing a permanent standing committee if we do not have a permanent committment from the funding sources?” he asked. “Again, on this funding aspect, we've always taken votes on establishing permanent standing committees when there are budget implications, which means the ordinaries are the ones that vote.”

The parliamentarian responded that because the vote didn't involve the budget, budget issues would have to be addressed later on if they arose.

Liberal San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy asked if the USCCB since its 2006-2008 reorganization had ever been presented with a proposal on a revenue-neutral permanent standing committee.

It appears this is the first time it has happened.

Lori said he didn't feel the bishops were in “the appropriate forum” to discuss greater details of the Committee's funding. However, he assured his fellow bishops, “I would say that I'm very familiar with [the Committee funders] and there are several.”

Their committment is “bedrock and I know that they are able to assist us year [after] year,” said Lori.

“The challenges to religious freedom run deeper than any set of specific court decisions or laws or policies,” said Lori. “And it's not just a question of who happens to have political power…rather, the very idea of religious freedom and its roots in human nature is [being] challenged” by society at the moment.

Cupich and Tobin were also both very vocal during discussions about immigration on Wednesday.