The nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Wednesday promised steadfast opposition to President Barack Obama's mandate that birth control be covered by health insurance, saying it is one of many threats to religious freedom in government.
Bishops insisted repeatedly that they had no partisan agenda. They said they were forced into action by state and federal policies that they say would require them to violate their beliefs in order to maintain the vast public-service network the church has built over a century or longer.
"It is not about parties, candidates or elections as others have suggested," said Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the bishops' religious-liberty committee. "The government chose to pick a fight with us."
The meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta is its first since dioceses, universities and Catholic charities filed a dozen federal lawsuits over Obama's rule that employers provide health insurance covering birth control.
The provision, part of the White House health care overhaul, generally exempts houses of worship, but faith-affiliated employers would have to comply.
Federal officials have said the rule is critical to preserving women's health by helping them space out their pregnancies.
Still, Obama has offered to soften the rule for religious employers by requiring insurance companies to cover the cost instead of faith groups. The administration is taking public comment through next week while working out the details, but bishops have said that the changes proposed so far do not put enough moral distance between the church and artificial contraception.
The bishops are organizing a "Fortnight for Freedom," two weeks of rallies and prayer services on religious freedom leading up to July Fourth. Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the pope's ambassador to the United States, told the bishops that the advocacy effort "has my full support."
Vigano noted that the religious-freedom push required a "delicate" approach in the context of a presidential election. But, quoting from a previous talk by Pope Benedict XVI about Catholics speaking out on public policy, the ambassador said the concerns were so worrisome that bishops had to act. Church leaders gave Vigano a standing ovation.
"It goes without saying that the Catholic Church in the United States is living in a particularly challenging period of its history," Vigano told the conference.
Many Catholics across the political spectrum have said they agree a broader religious exemption is needed for the mandate, but have still raised questions about the church's strategy of lawsuits and rallies.
"Most bishops don't want to be the Republican party at prayer, but their alarmist rhetoric and consistent antagonism toward the Obama administration often convey that impression," said John Gehring, of the liberal advocacy group Faith in Public Life.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., a member of the bishops' religious-liberty committee, said he had suggested the "Fortnight for Freedom" in November to coincide with liturgical feasts of martyred defenders of the faith including Thomas More.
"My intention was thinking of liturgy events, and that it was a time of prayer and education, not that it's a time for a political rally," Paprocki said.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George said the bishops had "every reason to hope and pray" that the Obama administration would respond to their concerns on the birth control mandate. But he said they needed to consider whether they should close their charities or take other action if no such accommodation is made. The bishops planned more discussion of the issue in private sessions throughout the week.
The bishops repeatedly emphasized that they were united in their agenda. Recently, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., expressed concern in an interview with America, the national Jesuit magazine, that the timing of the lawsuits could be seen as overly political.
Critics of the lawsuits seized on the remarks as evidence the bishops were divided. In Atlanta, however, Blaire spoke out forcefully against the birth control mandate.
"We have to get the government out of defining the church," he said. "We have an enormous battle ahead of us."
In addition to the religious-freedom issue, the Vatican is engaged in a public dispute with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest umbrella group for U.S. nuns.
In April, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the nuns' organization had strayed far from Catholic doctrine and gave three American bishops the authority to overhaul the group.
A few dozen people protested in support of the nuns outside the meeting and delivered petitions signed by more than 57,000 people _ one signature for each religious sister in the United States _condemning the Vatican inquiry.
Separately, the bishops marked the 10th anniversary of the child-safety policy they adopted in response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis.
The bishops have spent tens of millions of dollars on background checks for workers, assistance programs for victims, and training for children and teachers on identifying abuse. As part of their reforms, the bishops also pledged to remove all accused priests from any public church work.
Advocates for abuse victims, however, contend that dioceses have kept some accused clergy on assignment. A Philadelphia jury is currently deliberating in the child-endangerment trial of a monsignor who had supervised abusive priests.
In Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is set to be tried on misdemeanor failure to report suspected child abuse.
Bishops contend any violations are isolated and the vast majority of dioceses are complying with the discipline plan.