WASHINGTON, D.C., October 3, 2011 ( – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has unveiled a committee with the aim of safeguarding religious liberty. The formation of the committee comes two months after the Obama administration announced that private insurers will soon be forced to cover birth control – including abortifacient drugs like Ella – and sterilization without co-pay.

The U.S. bishops announced the new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty as a way to address growing concerns over the erosion of freedom of religion.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the United Sates Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), established the ad hoc committee after consulting with the USCCB Administrative Committee during the committee’s September 13-14 meeting in Washington. Dolan named Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as chairman of the committee, which will also include an expert in religious freedom law and a lobbyist.

The committee, said Lori, will “address the increasing threats to religious liberty in our society so that the Church’s mission may advance unimpeded and the rights of believers of any religious persuasion or none may be respected.”

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In a letter to bishops to announce the ad hoc committee, Archbishop Dolan said religious freedom “is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America,” and noted that federal policies were particularly to blame. The letter includes a list of problematic federal and state policies that includes the birth control mandate, as well as the Obama administration’s attack against church employment rights and characterization of pro-family advocacy as “bigotry.”

“As shepherds of over 70 million U.S. citizens we share a common and compelling responsibility to proclaim the truth of religious freedom for all, and so to protect our people from this assault which now appears to grow at an ever accelerating pace in ways most of us could never have imagined,” Dolan wrote.

Dolan indicated that the committee was intended to begin “a new moment in the history of our Conference,” particularly as the USCCB’s private dialogue with President Obama has been met with total silence. “Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider,” he wrote.

“If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave.”

The birth control mandate proposed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services in August would force even faithful Catholic hospitals and universities to provide their students and employees with free contraception and sterilization. A clause purporting to provide “conscience protection” for religious employers, defined as only those who serve primarily members of its own sect, has been called by far the narrowest such exemption in federal legislative history.