Washington, DC (written by Cathy Lynn Grossman/USA Today) -- U.S. Catholic leaders, claiming religious liberty is under assault from the Obama administration, are launching two weeks of non-stop nationwide teaching, preaching and public events to press their cause.
The campaign kicks off Thursday. Government, they say, should not decide who is religious enough to be exempt from government mandates - particularly a requirement to provide free contraception insurance coverage - that would force the faithful to violate church doctrine.
Nearly half of the nation's 195 dioceses have announced events from prayer breakfasts to town-hall-style meetings to readings of the Constitution. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is providing resources including a dramatic special prayer for strength and courage.
They have dubbed this a "Fortnight for Freedom," set to stretch from the feast day of two saints, martyrs who were murdered for refusing to bend Roman Catholic doctrine to meet a king's demands, to Independence Day.
The kickoff is in Baltimore, the first American diocese, led by Archbishop William Lori, who heads the bishops' committee on religious liberty. Lori told his brethren last week, "It will not be easy, and we may well suffer, as we are called to do, but we will not fail."
The national events wrap up at Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the nation, with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, celebrating Mass and outspoken traditionalist Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput giving the homily.
The bishops organized the campaign after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the requirements under the president's 2010 health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
Critics, however, say the liberty banner is being waved to cover up a war on free choice in a nation of many faiths. The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls the campaign a "clerical power grab" that redefines religious freedom to mean "the right to force their dogma on the unwilling."
The bishops say their deep objection is rooted in the HHS requirements' language, which says religious organizations and institutions would be exempt from the insurance rule only under a very narrow definition that excludes faith-based schools, colleges, hospitals, charities and social services that employ and serve people outside their religion.
Modifications were made to allow organizations that object to contraception as a matter of conscience to be hands-off, requiring their insurers to provide the contraceptive coverage instead. Lori called that "an accounting shell game."
In a new e-book, True Freedom, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the bishops conference, argues it is a religious duty to defend the Catholic perspective of human life as sacred from conception to death as "natural law."
Forty-three Catholic organizations, individuals and dioceses have sued in federal court challenging the mandate. Last week, 149 religious conservative evangelical leaders, in tandem with the bishops, sent a letter to the HHS calling for a wider religious exemption.
The upcoming presidential election looms over the Fortnight plans. Theologian George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said. "It's not the bishops who picked this fight" and they "can't wait on the Constitution for a presidential campaign to be over."
Rhetoric is already hot. At one lead-up rally in Missouri, Anthony Gerber, 31, an associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church, raised theoretical questions to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Where will the hubris stop? Will they mandate that women take contraception? Will they mandate that men be sterilized? Will they mandate that families only have one child, like they do in Communist China? And like in China, will this government mandate the church be quiet about it?"
The target audience is as much within the church as outside it, says political scientist and Jesuit priest Thomas Reese. Although bishops can call on every priest in every diocese to participate in Fortnight events, "those priests who agree and who don't like Obama will preach on it every Sunday. And the ones who don't agree will throw (the bishops' materials) in the circular file."
Sister Pat McCann, blogging for the Sisters of Mercy, said that "churches legitimately influence public debate and help to shape policy by raising a significant voice about moral implications of issues which beset us, but no church gets to establish policy one hundred per cent its own way."
Meanwhile, said Reese, Catholics, he says are "voting with their cars" by driving off to a church where they're not "harangued" on issues that make them uncomfortable.
Most Catholics (57%), like most Americans (68%), don't buy the bishops' case that the right of religious liberty is under threat, according to a March survey of 1,007 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a news release that religious freedom is treasured by all but it's not a blank check to allow advancement of a conservative political agenda or to undermine "existing anti-discrimination, health and welfare protections in the name of religious liberty."
The bishops are not exclusively critical of Obama. They cheered Obama's Friday announcement of an executive order to allow some young illegal immigrants opportunities to remain legally in the USA.