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Tomorrow, the U.S. Catholic Bishops launch their Fortnight for Freedom campaign. They say religious liberties are being threatened by the Obama administration and they're calling the faithful to two weeks of prayer, fasting and rallies.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) We are the young, our lives are a mystery...

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When the cantor at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Bethesda, Maryland, tries to lead the 200-or-so parishioners in worship, few people sing - it's a reserved crowd. But a few minutes later, they have plenty to say about religious freedom.

KATHLEEN BURKE: This is the first time that I've really felt personally attacked by my government.

HAGERTY: At stake, says parishioner Kathleen Burke, is the federal health care law which requires religious universities, hospitals, and charities to offer insurance plans that cover birth control; something the Catholic faith opposes.

Tom Shuler says the government has always made exceptions for religious organizations to adhere to their beliefs until now.

TOM SHULER: The Obama administration and all of the accompanying executives there are clearly anti-religious.

HAGERTY: Under the new law, if a Catholic hospital or university hires or serves non-Catholics, he says, it must abandon its religious teachings or face high penalties.

SHULER: Look it, Mother Teresa could not operate in the United States. Jesus could not operate in the United States right now.

HAGERTY: His wife, Jamie, is delighted the bishops are fighting back.

JAMIE SHULER: Obama has bought this on himself. If he doesn't want to play with fire, then don't light the match.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Stand beside her and guide her...

HAGERTY: In videos like this one, the bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign warns of a grave threat to religious liberty.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) From above...

(SOUNDBITE OF OMINOUS MUSIC)

PRESIDENT: I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central and that is the issue of health care.

HAGERTY: With the President's voice in the background, white letters on a black screen say: In 2012, the Obama administration took the first step to deny religious liberty...

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here comes the Catholic Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMINOUS MUSIC)

HAGERTY: Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who's heading the campaign, says the bishops have a simple goal.

ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM LORI: We're trying to protect our institutions and our fundamental freedoms as individuals. And so, this seemed to be the moment that we have to draw the line in the sand.

HAGERTY: And using some pretty strong rhetoric.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who heads the bishops' conference, says the White House is strangling the church. And then there's this sermon in April by Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria.

BISHOP DANIEL JENKY: Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open.

HAGERTY: Jenky went on to say the two dictators would not allow the church to compete in education, social services or health care.

JENKY: President Obama, with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.

HAGERTY: Archbishop Lori says these times call for blunt language.

LORI: Sometimes prophets are thought to be unduly alarmist and sometimes their speech is a little bit strong. But that's what prophetic speech always has been.

HAGERTY: Lori says Catholics are fully behind the campaign, something other Catholics dispute.

MARION MCCARTNEY: Nobody's religious freedom is at stake. That's just ridiculous.

HAGERTY: Marion McCartney attends the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C.

MCCARTNEY: Is Kathleen Sebelius going to come and close all the church doors? I mean, this is just foolishness.

HAGERTY: McCartney is part of a group of parishioners that opposes the campaign. Among them is Jim Zogby, who's worked on human rights issues overseas. He says if you want to see religious persecution, talk to the Orthodox Christians in Syria or the Coptic Christians in Egypt. He says the U.S. bishops have been spoiling for a fight over social issues with the Obama administration.

DR. JIM ZOGBY: They've declared war on the administration and we, the faithful, are paying the price for it by having, in fact, our religious freedom - our ability to simply go to church, worship, feel a community, feel safe in that community - we're now being put in the middle of a partisan fight. And that's wrong.

HAGERTY: His wife, Eileen, says Blessed Sacrament, with its mix of liberals and conservatives, has always put politics aside. Not now. At a recent parish meeting about religious freedom, people began attacking President Obama, she says, getting more and more heated.

EILEEN ZOGBY: Until finally one person leaned forward and he said, well, I have seen cars in our parking lot with Obama stickers on them, and they are complicit in all of this.

HAGERTY: Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, says the bishops have lost credibility with many Catholics. He believes there is a valid concern about the health care law, but many Catholics are not listening because they're unhappy about the sex abuse crisis and the Vatican's recent investigation of the Catholic sisters in America.

SCOTT APPLEBY: Many Catholics are thinking, well, there they go again. That's unfair in this situation, but it's understandable because the bishops have been perceived to have made one wrong turn after another for at least the last decade.

HAGERTY: Appleby says some Catholics are uncomfortable with the timing of Fortnight for Freedom, months before a presidential election. Well, the White House started it, says Archbishop Lori, by writing the law.

LORI: We did not go looking for a fight in an election year. It was handed to us.

HAGERTY: Lori adds if they don't act now, it will be too late.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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