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Bishops urge effort for resisting 'unjust' laws; Catholic conference calls for religious campaign

The nation's Catholic bishops called Thursday for a national campaign in defense of religious liberty and urged resistance to laws that church officials consider unjust.

In a new 12-page document that quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the bishops said priests, laypeople, public figures and others must be involved in the effort to change recent state and federal laws that church leaders believe violate religious freedom.

"We address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad," the bishops wrote.

The highest-profile clash has been over the mandate in the Obama administration's health care overhaul that most employers cover birth-control costs for workers.

The White House has offered a compromise for church-affiliated groups such as hospitals and universities, but bishops said the changes haven't gone far enough.

Critics within and outside the church have accused the bishops of pressing the issue to remove President Obama from office. But the bishops wrote, "this ought not to be a partisan issue."

"The Constitution is not for Democrats or Republicans or independents. It is for all of us, and a great nonpartisan effort should be led by our elected representatives to ensure that it remains so," the bishops wrote.

Several bishops have shut down their adoption and foster care programs where the government would require them to place children with same-sex couples.

Church leaders have also been fighting tough immigration laws in Alabama and elsewhere that many religious groups say make it impossible for them to aid illegal immigrants.

Catholic leaders have also protested a decision by federal officials not to renew a church contract for work with sex-trafficking victims. Church officials would not provide the women with birth control or abortion services.

The bishops cited a line from King's 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he wrote that an unjust law is "out of harmony with the moral law." The bishops said that no "accommodation" can be sought for such laws. Instead, they must be resisted or repealed.

"If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them," the bishops wrote.

The document mentions objections to new local measures, including one in New York City that limits the right of churches to use public school buildings for worship on weekends.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans a national "Fortnight for Freedom" from June 21 to July 4 that will include prayer and study about religious liberty.

It isn't entirely clear how the religious liberty issue is resonating among Americans and what impact it might have on the presidential race.

The bishops named concerns about the issue their top priority last year, but the topic didn't gain traction until this year, when several GOP candidates adopted the argument that the White House has launched a "war on religion."

Many Americans (Catholic and otherwise) joined the bishops in opposing the contraception policy earlier this year, but public energy appeared to die down once the White House offered an alternative that was accepted by some Catholic groups.

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has criticized the contraception policy, but the former Massachusetts governor has not been as vocal on the broader issue of religious freedom as have his former GOP nomination rival Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, and his primary remaining challenger, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The bishops are not the only ones raising concerns. Religious liberty lawyers across the spectrum have said for some time that a legal collision is inevitable between the civil rights of gays and lesbians (to marry, to adopt) and the rights of religious groups that for moral reasons oppose same-sex relationships.