Top U.S. Catholic bishops on Wednesday formally made their fight against a White House mandate for reproductive services the church’s top priority, saying “this struggle for religious freedom” demands their immediate attention.

The statement, issued by the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, came at the end of a closed, two-day meeting and as some close to the bishops say the men are concerned that their campaign is faltering in the public square.

“This dispute is not about access to contraceptives but about the government’s forcing the church to provide them,” the statement read.

The statement represents an expanded public relations effort to oppose the mandate that most religious employers provide health-care coverage for employees, including contraception and sterilization, services forbidden by Catholic teaching.

“If this definition is allowed to stand, it will spread throughout federal law, weakening its healthy tradition of generous respect for religious freedom and diversity,” the bishops’ Administrative Committee said.

In the coming days the bishops will also launch a broader effort about religious freedom, expanding to include not only reproductive issues but state and local laws they say reflect a chipping away at the rights of religious groups. They’ll go after laws requiring religious ministries to turn in illegal immigrants they serve, limitations on religious groups on college campuses, restrictions on religious groups renting public schools for worship and other issues the bishops see as a trend.

But some church-watchers say the bishops are trying to remake their public image on the subject, having won a great deal of public support earlier this year on the health-care issue — even from more liberal Catholics — and then seemingly getting caught up as the issue became more strongly partisan.

“When there is a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit making fun of a bishop, you may have lost the framing issue,” said Michael Sean Winters, a liberal Catholic writer who is close to some bishops.

Some longtime church-watchers said the bishops’ strong push into the public arena is a shift. During many other policy debates, they have been more divided but now perceive a genuine crisis, said Jim Towey, a former faith official under President George W. Bush and now president of the Catholic Ave Maria University. The Vatican’s years of promoting more conservative bishops have also resulted in a unified focus on issues including abortion and orthodox doctrine, he said.

“The bishops haven’t been in the rally business,” he said. “This is a dramatic difference from the past.”

A spokeswoman for the bishops said they had been trying to frame the religious freedom campaign broadly since last fall, but were forced by news events to focus on the health-care mandate and contraception.

“For one thing, that’s what everyone is asking them about,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She added, however, that the mandate was “the most significant” item on their agenda.

Walsh said members of the conference are continuing meetings with the White House.

In the meantime, the bishops will launch their public religious freedom campaigns in the media, in efforts with lawmakers and in parishes with priests sermonizing.

“It’s a full-court press,” she said.