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Washington D.C. – Roman Catholic bishops in the United States are urging the public not to obey laws that counter religious beliefs.
The bishops have launched a campaign in the name of religious liberty, and say that laws that the church deems at odds with its moral teachings should not be followed.
In a new 12-page document that quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the bishops said priests, lay people, public figures and others must be involved in the effort to change recent state and federal laws that church leaders believe violate religious freedom.
Church leaders have been fighting tough immigration laws in Alabama and elsewhere that many religious groups say make it impossible for them to aid undocumented immigrants. Many such laws include provisions making it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants.
Catholic leaders have also protested a decision by federal officials not to renew a church contract for work with sex trafficking victims, many of whom are from Latin America. The decision not to renew the contract was linked to church officials' refusal to provide the women birth control or abortion services.
"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.
Churches of various denominations long have stood at the side of people they consider unfairly targeted by unjust laws -- in recent years churches have, for instance, offered sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation.
In New Jersey, the Reformed Church of Highland Park is helping three Indonesian immigrants avoid deportation by allowing them to live inside the church.
Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale said has vowed to continue to welcome undocumented Indonesian immigrants into his church. The immigrants living inside the church say they came to the U.S. to escape persecution because of their Christian faith.
Several years ago, Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, made national headlines when she took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid being separated from her U.S.-born.
Arellano became an activist and a national symbol for illegal immigrant parents as she defied her deportation order and spoke out from her religious sanctuary. She was arrested and deported by immigration officials -- who normally are reluctant to enter a church to enforce laws -- after she spoke at a rally.
The highest-profile clash between the church and government 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 Barack 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.
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 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.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.