America's Roman Catholic bishops and church-affiliated groups are poised to launch a two-week campaign of events, special Masses and grass-roots organizing likely to intensify a clash with the Obama administration over religious freedom, women's health care and contraception.
During the Fortnight for Freedom, beginning Thursday and concluding July 4, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and leading church organizations are asking followers to pray, use social media and engage in some old-fashioned lobbying in a bid to overturn a controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate for employers. — including many religious-affiliated institutions — to provide health insurance coverage for some contraceptive and abortion-inducing services.
Organizers say their mission is simple: Protect religious freedom. The USCCB is doubling down on its General Assembly's unanimous June 14 vote that described the Obama administration proposal as "an unwarranted government definition of religion" and "a mandate to act against our teachings."
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the conference's religious freedom committee, rejected arguments that the Fortnight for Freedom was a political event, telling reporters earlier this month the event "was not about parties, candidates or elections."
"Already we realize that defending religious freedom is not a walk in the park," Archbishop Lori told the Catholic News Service. "We've seen some reaction to our work that is sometimes hostile, sometimes unfair and inaccurate and sometimes derisive."
But critics say the event is nothing but political posturing. In a letter last month to the New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, an outspoken supporter of the event, members of Call to Action, a liberal Catholic group, said the Fortnight for Freedom "seems motivated by political concerns designed to protect the institutional church rather than its members and to use its members as a political weapon against its opponent."
While the bishop insist the two-week campaign is not political, it comes just months before a presidential election in which the nation's 57 million Catholics could prove a vital swing vote in a number of states critical to the president's re-election hopes.
Candidate Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008 (despite trailing GOP candidate Sen. John McCain among white Catholics), but recent Pew Research and New York Times polls suggest GOP nominee Mitt Romney enjoys a small lead among Catholics this year. Catholics are a key voting bloc in a number of states, most notably in the industrial Midwest where the electoral battle in November is expected to be particularly fierce.
The Fortnight for Freedom begins with an opening Mass in Baltimore at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption on Thursday.
The Archdiocese of Washington will sponsor some of the largest events and has created a website (www.sacredproperty.org) to guide followers. The local start is scheduled Sunday at the George Washington University's Charles E. Smith Center with a final Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl July 4 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Other events across the country include a July 1 Celebration Walk and picnic in Des Moines, a lecture on religious freedom in La Crosse, Wis., and special Masses by bishops in Texas, Nevada, and California.
A spokeswoman for the Catholic Association hopes to mobilize 1 million Catholics in support of the Fortnight for Freedom. Their 14-point plan relies upon a snowball effect exploiting social media such as Facebook and Twitter to create more opposition to the birth-control mandate.
The group even funded a one-day national cable TV ad purchase on Fox News to highlight the work of religious charities — institutions that the association thinks are most at risk if the mandate is carried out.
When the furor over the HHS rule first broke, Mr. Obama tried to broker a compromise in which religious organizations could opt out of offering insurance that covers contraception, though the insurer would be required to offer the coverage. While some Catholic health groups initially welcomed the offer, the bishop concluded it did not go far enough to meet their concerns.
Churches are already exempt from the insurance mandate.
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