Roman Catholic groups in the U.S. started a two-week campaign Thursday of prayer vigils and rallies to fight what they consider government attacks on religious liberty.The immediate target is the mandate that President Barack Obama announced in January requiring most employers to provide health insurance that covers birth control, which the Vatican opposes.
Critics accuse the bishops of organizing the campaign as a partisan assault on Obama. But church leaders say their only goal is to protect religious freedom.
The “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign runs through Independence Day, July 4.
“In only the past few years, we’ve experienced rampant disregard for religious beliefs in this country,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote 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. Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Opponents are unconvinced. “This bishops’ project isn’t about religious freedom _ it’s about privilege,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, 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 bishops’ new religious freedom committee 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 for houses of worship, but not for religiously affiliated hospitals, charities, universities and social service agencies. Many Catholics from across the political spectrum protested that the Health and Human Services department chose the narrowest religious exemption available and urged Obama to reconsider.
In response, the president said he would require insurance companies to cover the cost instead of religious groups. However, some Catholic allies have called the compromise inadequate.
Last month, Catholic dioceses, charities and schools filed a dozen lawsuits against the administration over the mandate.