Forty-one prominent U.S. Catholic lay leaders have signed a statement in which they urge the 2012 major presidential candidates to conduct their campaigns with civility and to honor religious freedom.

The letter, sent to the candidates on Nov. 2, comes four weeks after a Baptist minister told reporters that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is a cult, a claim that, the lay leaders say, held Romney up for ridicule.

“You should not be attacking because of religion,” said Thomas Patrick Melady of Washington, D.C., a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican as well as to Burundi and Uganda, who helped organize the effort and draft the statement. “People have strong feelings one way or another, but you should keep the debate on the issues and avoid this whole thing of this religion, that religion,” he said. “It is not in the spirit of the American Constitution.”

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