Called the Fortnight for Freedom, bishops organized the education campaign during liturgical feasts for martyred defenders of the faith. Independent advocacy groups such as CatholicVote.org and Women Speak For Themselves have joined the effort with TV ads, videos, Facebook appeals and petition drives.
While the religious freedom campaign includes protests against state laws and policies, the bishops’ immediate target is the mandate President Obama announced in January that most employers provide health insurance that covers birth control. Federal officials said the rule was critical to women’s health by helping them space out pregnancies.
Critics have accused the bishops of organizing the campaign as a partisan assault on Obama in an election year. But church leaders insist they have no partisan agenda and blame the timing on when federal officials approved the rule.
“In only the past few years, we’ve experienced rampant disregard for religious beliefs in this country,” wrote New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an e-book released for the Fortnight effort.
Among the examples he cites are approval for embryonic stem cell research, legal justification for torturing prisoners and support for same-sex marriage.
“We can see that there is a loss here of a sense of truth and objective moral norms – rules of conduct that apply always, to everyone, everywhere – an infringement of religious liberty and an ‘eclipse of the sense of God and of man,’ ” Dolan wrote.
Opponents are unconvinced.
“This bishops’ project isn’t about religious freedom – it’s about privilege,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “They are asking for preferential treatment from the government, and if they are successful, it would undercut the rights of millions of Americans.”
The Fortnight for Freedom schedule kicked off Thursday night with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore, celebrated by Baltimore Archbishop William Lori. Activities are planned in cities across the country leading up to Independence Day.
Lori leads the bishops’ new religious freedom committee. The panel was formed last September in response to what church leaders viewed as inadequate religious exemptions in many state laws that authorized gay marriage and mandated contraception coverage in employers’ health insurance or prescription drug plans.
The Obama mandate on contraception coverage included a religious exemption that generally allowed houses of worship to opt-out, but not religiously affiliated hospitals, charities, universities and social service agencies.
Many Catholics from across the political spectrum protested that the Department of Health and Human Services chose the narrowest religious exemption available and urged the president to reconsider.
Liberal-leaning religious groups generally supported Obama, while more conservative leaders from other traditions backed the Catholic bishops.
In response, Obama said he would require insurance companies to cover the cost instead of religious groups. However, even some Catholic allies whose support was critical to passage of the administration’s health care law, including the Catholic Health Association, have called the compromise inadequate.
Last month, Catholic dioceses, charities and schools, including the University of Notre Dame, filed a dozen lawsuits against the administration over the mandate. The law firm Jones Day, which is also representing businesses challenging Obama’s health care law in court, is handling the cases for the Catholic groups pro bono.
Lori has said that funding for the religious freedom campaign has come from the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization and life insurance agency; the Order of Malta, a Catholic order that aids the sick; and the conservative Catholic publisher Our Sunday Visitor.