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Bishops take religious freedom fight to each state

NEW YORK — Roman Catholic groups embarked Thursday on a two-week campaign of prayer vigils, rallies and other events to draw attention to what they consider government attacks on religious freedom.

Called the "Fortnight for Freedom," bishops organized the education campaign during liturgical feasts for martyred defenders of the faith. Independent advocacy groups such as 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 Barack Obama announced in January that most employers provide health insurance that covers birth control.

The mandate included a religious exemption that generally allowed houses of worship to opt-out, but not religiously affiliated hospitals, charities, universities and social service agencies.

"In only the past few years, we've experienced rampant disregard for religious beliefs in this country," wrote New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 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,' " wrote Dolan, 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."