By Greg McCune
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Catholic clergy on Sunday called on the faithful to write Congress to protest new birth control rules from President Barack Obama's administration, stepping up a campaign that began a week ago with denunciations from the pulpit at Masses across the country.
The fight is over a provision of the health reform law announced on Jan 20 that would require health insurance plans -- including those offered by institutions such as Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities -- to offer free birth control including sterilization.
Republican presidential candidates New Gingrich and Rick Santorum seized on the issue on Sunday television talk shows, criticizing the Obama administration as misguided and anti-Catholic.
"He (Obama) has basically declared war on the Catholic Church," Gingrich said on "Meet The Press" Sunday.
Asked if the contraceptives issue would rebound on Obama in the election, Gingrich said: "I think there are millions of people who are very disturbed by it."
Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that the contraception ruling could lose Obama the election because the Catholic vote is concentrated in battleground states.
The White House defended the policy, saying that only institutions such as hospitals that service a large non-Catholic community would have to offer free birth control. The administration also said the availability of birth control would reduce the number of abortions.
While polls show a large majority of U.S. Catholics ignore church teaching against contraceptives, Catholic clergy were outraged by the Obama ruling, viewing it as forcing Catholic hospitals and other services to skirt church doctrine.
Obama in 2008 won the votes of a 54 percent of Catholics, reversing a Republican majority of the Catholic vote won by George W. Bush in 2004. Catholics are about a quarter of the U.S. populations, with large blocs in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all won by Obama in 2008.
On the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an "Urgent Action Alert" was posted calling on Catholics to write to Congress protesting the rule.
At Immaculate Conception Catholic church in the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, Monsignor David E. Diamond read the congregation on Sunday a letter from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput calling on parishioners to write to Congress in protest.
"Write them, call them, visit them - and help them understand the deep resistance of Pennsylvania Catholics to this dangerous ruling," the letter said.
After Mass, John Fruncillo, 65, said he agreed with the clergy.
"I told my wife on the way out (of church) that it's about time the church started taking a stand on some of these issues." said Fruncillo, adding that he did not vote for Obama in 2008 and probably would not in 2012.
In Wisconsin, Barbara Schrawk said she voted for Obama in 2008 but was "on the fence" this year.
"This should not be a political issue," Schrawk, 68, said of the birth control ruling as she entered St. Alphonsus Catholic church in the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale, Wisconsin.
In the battleground state of Ohio, Donald and Katherine Miller, holding their 5-month-old daughter Anne, compared the Obama administration ruling to forcing a Jewish kosher restaurant to serve pork.
"This is basically forcing Catholics to do something that is against their beliefs -- puts them in a place where they have to choose between violating God or violating the laws of the country," said Donald Miller outside a Catholic church in Cleveland. He said Catholics should defy the law.
But some Catholics said the birth control dispute would not affect their support for Obama this year.
Wally Brunelli, 70, said that while he opposes the use of contraceptives he would support Obama in 2012 as he did four years ago.
"Personally I feel as if this is something that the person themselves ... should decide," Brunelli said after church in the Milwaukee suburb.
(Additional reporting by Kim Palmer in Cleveland, Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukie; Editing by Ed Tobin)