In a new document being widely distributed among Catholic churches and state policymakers, Maryland’s leading bishops cast the push to legalize same-sex marriage as part of a broader erosion of religious freedom.

The document, titled “The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland,” is being sent to Maryland’s nearly 280 Catholic parishes, as well as to all state elected officials, according to the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Its distribution comes as both sides on the issue gear up for another fight over same-sex marriage when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. A bill legalizing gay nuptials passed the Senate last session but fell short in the House of Delegates.

The bishops argue that “efforts to alter society’s long-standing definition of marriage ... infringe upon the religious liberties of individuals and institutions that acknowledge heterosexual marriage not only as a fact of nature but also as an article of faith.”

The bishops also cite federal, state and local battles over issues including contraception, pregnancy counseling and abortion services as evidence that “the right to exercise our faith and follow our conscience in all aspects of our lives is a right increasingly viewed with hostility.”

The document is signed by Washington Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Baltimore Apostolic Administrator Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, and Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly.

The efforts of the Catholic Church to influence legislative debate in Maryland are particularly noteworthy because both presiding officers of the General Assembly are Catholics, as is Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

O’Malley has pledged to sponsor the same-sex marriage bill in the upcoming session, saying it’s a matter of providing equal treatment under the law. House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has also voiced support for the legislation..

The bill that passed the Senate last session included a section on religious protections, which O’Malley has said he will consider strengthening.

As next year’s debate approaches, a coalition advocating for same-sex marriage has been releasing a series of videos on the Web to build support.

On Thursday, Equality Maryland, the state’s leading gay-rights lobby, announced it hard hired Carrie Evans as its new executive director.

Evans served as the organization’s director of policy and planning and is now a policy analyst for Baltimore’s housing department and an adjunct faculty member for the Gender and Women’s Studies department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Evans also worked as the state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.