Catholics step up protests of ObamaCare contraceptive coverage mandate

Catholics have begun what is called a "Fortnight for Freedom" with Masses and demonstrations around the country -- an effort to protest a ruling from the Obama administration that, they say, forces many Catholic institutions to violate church teachings.

"Now it is up to us to defend the church's mission, the church's freedom, to fulfill her mission," Bishop William Lori said in a Mass in Baltimore kicking off the two-week campaign.

Catholics object to a ruling from the administration that says only churches -- not Catholic schools, hospitals and charities -- will be exempt from having to provide employees with coverage for the entire range of contraceptives, the use of which Catholic teaching prohibits.

Catholic institutions are being told "to provide for free contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, even if it violates their beliefs," says Maureen Ferguson of the Catholic Association. "So really this is a stunning attack on the First Amendment."

Critics have accused the bishops of organizing the campaign as a partisan assault on Obama in an election year.

"This bishops' project isn't about religious freedom -- it's about privilege," the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Associated Press. "They are asking for preferential treatment from the government, and if they are successful, it would undercut the rights of millions of Americans."

At St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Cardinal Dolan gave thanks to God for religious liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and described his prayer this way: "That we'd never grow lax, we'd never take that liberty for granted and that we'd have the courage to stand up and defend it."

The Health and Human Services Department ruled that only institutions such as churches that hire and serve those of the same faith would be exempted from providing contraception coverage to employees.

That complicates life for church-related hospitals and charities, which are the nation's No. 1 non-governmental provider of health care. And they serve anyone in need.

Although studies have shown almost all women, including Catholics, have used some form of contraception, many parishioners support the church in its battle and see the administration's move as a fundamental threat to religious freedom.

"If the ... mandate is approved, if it goes, then it's the beginning of the tearing down of all religious liberty," Barbara Melanson of Baltimore told Fox News.

And Ferguson says, "the church is asking not for people to take to the streets and get arrested, but the church is calling for Catholics to say this is an unjust law and we can't follow it."

The administration said once again Friday it has offered accommodations to make sure religious organizations do not have to pay for or provide contraception, by making their insurance companies do it instead.

Health and Human Services also said it'll consider comments and suggestions before finalizing its policies, which officials say, "will both respect religious liberty and ensure millions of women have access to preventive services."

Many Catholic institutions self-insure, however, and argue that is not an accommodation at all, and they note contraceptives are widely available elsewhere at little or no cost.

Catholic leaders say they're not trying to change that -- they just don't want the church to be forced to cover the cost of contraceptives at the direction of the government.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.