WASHINGTON (CNS) — A letter to President Barack Obama and congressional leaders asks them to “renounce publicly” a contentious sentence in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ report that equates religious freedom with discrimination.

The letter, dated Oct. 7 and released Oct. 12, was signed by 17 religious leaders, including two U.S. Catholic bishops.

The sentence was written by commission chairman Martin Castro and was incorporated into the 306-page report issued Sept. 8. It said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”

“We understand that people of good faith can disagree about the relationship between religious liberty and anti-discrimination laws in our country, and how that relationship should best be structured,” said the letter, released in Washington by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These questions have to do with issues critical to the common good such as marriage, the family, contraception, abortion and the source of human dignity.

“At the same time, we are one in demanding that no American citizen or institution be labeled by their government as bigoted because of their religious views, and dismissed from the political life of our nation for holding these views. And yet that is precisely what the Civil Rights Commission report does.”

The letter said, “There should be no place in our government for such a low view of our First Freedom — the first of our civil rights — least of all from a body dedicated to protecting them all.”

Among the signatories were Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, N.Y. Also signing was Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University in Washington and president of the Religious Freedom Institute.

On Sept. 13, Archbishop Lori issued his own statement criticizing Castro without mentioning him by name. “Statements painting those who support religious freedom with the broad brush of bigotry are reckless and reveal a profound disregard for the religious foundations of his own work,” the archbishop said.

Other signatories of the letter included representatives from Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Mormon, Southern Baptist, Baha’i, African Methodist Episcopal and evangelical leaders, as well as leaders of nonreligious organizations.

The letter was addressed to Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate President Pro Tem Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

It said each of the letter’s signers “opposes hateful rhetoric and actions,” and believes in the equality of all Americans, no matter their creed or community. However, it said, they all “are determined and unafraid” to speak the truths about beliefs they “have held for millennia.”

“Slandering ideas and arguments with which one disagrees as ‘racism’ or ‘phobia’ not only cheapens the meaning of those words, but can have a chilling effect on healthy debate over, or dissent from, the prevailing orthodoxy. Such attacks on dissent have no place in the United States where all religious beliefs, the freedom to express them, and the freedom to live by them are protected by the First Amendment,” the letter said.

“We are grateful particularly to President Obama for his willingness to recognize that the religious and moral dimension of our laws is not only unavoidable, but has long served the cause of civil rights,” it added.

One of a series of talking points prepared by the USCCB in support of the religious leaders’ letter says: “The U.S. bishops have spoken forcefully in defense of religious freedom in the U.S. and have also highlighted the suffering of persecuted Christians around the world. We can honor those who suffer persecution by robustly living our faith, but we need to have the freedom to do so.”