ATLANTA — Stung by criticism that they are engaging in partisan attacks in a presidential campaign, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops insisted Wednesday that their fight with President Obama has nothing to do with party politics or contraception, and everything to do with what they see as a fundamental assault on religious liberty.
The bishops did not shrink from attacking the administration in a dispute that has become their signature issue, one involving what Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton called "the most serious intrusion of government that we have ever experienced."
One speaker at the annual spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went so far as to compare the situation confronting the American church to the one that faced Thomas More, the Catholic saint who was beheaded in the 16th century for refusing to accept the supremacy of the English king over the pope.
"We protect the freedom of religion because we think it is wrong to coerce belief," said John Garvey, president of Catholic University. "Thomas More's story shows what can happen when those protections break down."
The battle that has led to such charged rhetoric is over provisions in the president's healthcare plan that mandate contraception coverage in private health insurance, including plans that cover employees of church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities.
Although surveys have shown that the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control, and numerous major Catholic institutions have long provided contraception coverage to their employees, the church considers it to be morally wrong.
After an initial eruption of dissent from the bishops and many Catholic organizations, Obama announced a compromise this year that satisfied many moderate Catholics by shifting the burden of providing contraception from the employers to their insurance companies. The bishops, however, were not mollified.
They object not only to the idea that Catholic institutions will be complicit in dispensing contraception, but also to the reason that the institutions are not being exempted from the rule altogether, as churches and diocesan offices are. The government's definition of an exempt religious institution requires that most of its employees and, even more controversial, most of the people it serves are members of the same faith.
That definition, the bishops say, suggests a misunderstanding of the Christian impulse to help others, regardless of their background.
The Catholic bishops have powerful allies in the battle, including major organizations of conservative Christian evangelicals. Also on their side is Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has accused Obama of being broadly antagonistic to religion.
The president has denied that religious liberty is at stake and has framed the contraception issue as one involving women's health and reproductive freedom. Many liberal and moderate religious groups agree and support his handling of the matter.
Some Catholic commentators in recent weeks have criticized the bishops for thrusting themselves into a partisan campaign and have expressed concern that the church is giving short shrift to other issues, such as the plight of immigrants and the poor.
Catholic doctrine has never easily coexisted with either of the major party platforms. The church tends to side with Republicans on abortion and same-sex marriage, and with Democrats on healthcare, social justice and immigration reform.
Catholic voters form one of the largest blocs of swing voters and will be central to the election strategy of both Romney and Obama. Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008, but recent tracking polls show Catholics almost evenly split between the candidates.
At the opening day of their spring meeting, the bishops scarcely mentioned immigration reform, once a front-burner topic. They did vote on a motion by Blaire, the Stockton bishop, to draft a message on "Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy" and heard a report on progress in combating sexual abuse by priests.
That report praised the church's safeguards and urged continued vigilance. It found, however, that there had been an increase in "boundary violations" by priests, which it defined as behavior such as improper touching or tickling. It said many of the violations were by foreign-born clergy, suggesting they might be explained by cultural differences.
"This issue needs to be investigated more thoroughly," the report said.
Still, it was clear that the bishops' overriding concern was the birth control mandate.
"I would right now like us to see all of our energy directed at every level, whether it's at the executive, the legislative or the judicial, to changing that," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. "Once that has been resolved, we can get on with the rest of our work."