JAMAICA, N.Y. (CNS) — Religious liberty is facing such grave threats in the United States that Catholics must take immediate and courageous action to defend fundamental values both in the public forum and in the privacy of the voting booth, according to speakers at a Sept 20 forum.

More than 400 people assembled at St. John’s University heard impassioned calls to educate themselves about the erosion of long-guaranteed rights, form their consciences to reflect basic moral issues and agitate with compassion and civility to protect religious freedom.

“Our religious liberty is under assault like never before in America, in ways that are chilling, that are alien and unimagined on these shores,” said Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If we fail to stand, if we fail to fight, if we fail to refuse to comply, our God-given liberty … will be but a distant memory.”

The forum was based on the Manhattan Declaration, a 4,700-word joint statement signed in November 2009 by more than 140 Christian leaders, many evangelical and Catholic, pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom. To date, more than 530,000 people have signed the declaration, including 52 Catholic cardinals and bishops.

Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, said religious freedom was enshrined in the foundational documents of the country and guaranteed by leaders until recently. In urging listeners to sign the Manhattan Declaration he said, “We will render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we will not render to Caesar what is God’s.”

Sears said legislative threats to religious liberty and the sanctity of life and marriage are an attempt to place “legal limits on the love of God.” He called the Obama administration’s health plan “a dictatorial mandate, unprecedented in our nation’s history.”

He said policies enforced by myriad czars at all levels of government make people choose “between God and their livelihood, between their education and their faith and between their family’s financial security and their beliefs.”

Sears said the debate about the definition of marriage is “a key to a legal Pandora’s Box,” whose opening will unleash demands for public support, silencing of the opposition and punishment for those who do not comply.

William Mumma, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the nation’s founders believed in the primacy of conscience, but also were pragmatic men who recognized that any government set up in opposition to the religious convictions of its people “fatally loses its moral legitimacy.”

“If the law is not rooted in the moral law, the American people will not reject God, they will reject the law. When the law sets out to destroy religion, it enters into a murder-suicide pact. The government may murder religious liberty, but it can’t kill religion,” he said.

Mumma said the action of the current administration, as exemplified by its defense of the HHS mandate, shows “Religion is not the accidental victim of the government pursuing some other interest you might quarrel about. Religion is the target.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “We are at a tipping point in this greatest civil rights movement of our day, the pro-life movement.”

She called election day the turning point between expanding or contracting the human community. Dannenfelser said the tradition of pro-life Democrats, such as the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, has been eroded. “You can’t build human rights on the broken rights of other people,” she said.

She said President Barack Obama disappointed Catholic supporters who believed in 2008 he would respect and seek common ground among people of different beliefs.

“He proceeded to march abortion through every department of the administration and made it clear he would do nothing to undermine reproductive rights. He’s gone from seeking common ground to rejecting anything that a civilized human being would endorse,” she said.

Dannenfelser said communities suffer from the loss of people whose lives are aborted. “If an individual does not show up, the community does not flourish. Even one missing person is a tragedy. Four hundred a day is inconceivable, as is the suffering of the mothers” of these unborn children.

She said public opinion can be moved toward a just cause if people make a connection to the victim, and move an issue from theory to reality. “The Manhattan Declaration is important because it’s personal. We are now being required to pay for the deaths of unborn children (through the HHS mandate).”

Princeton University professor Robert P. George, a drafter of the Manhattan Declaration, said that if “religious freedom is a right, it’s a right for every human being. If religious freedom is in jeopardy for one, it’s in jeopardy for all.”

In his homily at the opening Mass, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said, “We believe in divine revelation and recognize that we have an obligation to completely give ourselves over to the plan of God.

“For us to simply pick and choose what is convenient about the message of the church and Christ’s teaching would be inauthentic,” he said. “Those who hold otherwise are wrong about the teaching of the church and about the development of our understanding of human life. They are wrong objectively. But to judge them is not our task.”

Bishop DiMarzio urged participants to “vote a Catholic and Christian conscience that is well-formed.”

He was a host of the event, sponsored by the diocese, the Becket Fund, Priests for Life and Knights of Columbus New York Council.