A group of health-care activists plans to gather this afternoon outside Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's Camden office. They're not going to hoist signs or yell slogans. Instead, they'll likely hold hands, bow their heads, and pray.

As Congress begins its August recess, a national organization of faith groups is launching a campaign to promote universal health-care coverage as a "moral obligation." President Obama has asked both chambers to resume debate when they return Sept. 8.

Religious groups will hold events today outside 100 congressional offices in about 20 states, said Gordon Whitman, policy director for the interfaith network People Improving Communities Through Organizing.

At Lautenberg's office, Camden Churches Organized for People is hosting a 3 p.m. prayer rally featuring from 10 to 15 leaders of local churches of several denominations.

About 16 percent of New Jersey residents lack health insurance, according to the state Center for Health Statistics.

A TV spot titled "40 Days for Health Reform," in which congregational leaders from across the country urge passage of universal health care, was scheduled to debut last night on CNN, Whitman said.

Neither the events nor ad pressure Congress on any particular plan. The debate sparks a religious nerve, leaders say, because it hits at the base of the human condition.

The Rev. Heyward Wiggins of the Camden Bible Tabernacle Church, who helped organize the Camden rally, said the window of opportunity for religious groups to push for health care had never been this wide open.

"Most of the time, the focus is on finances and resources," he said. "But the moral obligation for everyone to have access to affordable health care is a stance that I believe all religious organizations should be taking."

The Catholic Diocese of Camden also stressed the issue's urgency. Spokesman Andrew Walton said care for all citizens was "a matter of human dignity."

However, Walton said, the diocese is wary of any legislation that would not provide the current safeguards against federal funding for abortions.

Last week, the diocese issued an "action alert" on its Web site, asking South Jersey Catholics to contact congressmen and ask them to leave abortion funding out of the federal plan.

Whitman said the long-established role of religious hospitals providing medical services in Camden and throughout the country made the need for universal health care especially pertinent to people of faith.

"It's actually been an easy step for congregations to say, 'We're already a part of the health-care challenge, and there's an opportunity to make structural change,' " he said.

People Improving Communities Through Organizing has been raising a host of social-justice issues before congregations for 35 years, Whitman said.

"This is by far the greatest response at a national level that we've gotten," he said.

Though his synagogue is not affiliated with today's prayer service, Rabbi Michael Fessler of B'nai Tikvah in Washington Township said the health-care debate goes back in the Jewish faith, as the 12th-century Jewish scholar Maimonides argued that no person should live in a city that did not have a physician.

"In Judaism, you really see health care as doing God's work," Fessler said. He listed universal health care, along with environmental protection and racial equality, among consensus stances across various creeds.

Where religion and politics have often converged on divisive issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, Rob Boston, spokesman for the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the health-care debate represents a different dynamic.

"In recent years, we have seen progressive religious groups being a little more vocal . . . and I think this is part of that," Boston said.

Joining pastors and priests at today's rally, on Riverside Drive on the riverfront, will be 11 social justice students from Villanova University and registered nurse Marilyn Dixon-Hill, 56, of Voorhees, who works for Holy Redeemer Health System. On Sundays, she provides informal health screenings for her fellow parishioners at Camden Bible Tabernacle.

The story she hopes to tell today is that of former churchgoer Ronald Butler, an uninsured 56-year-old who died in July from a brain tumor.

Despite two trips to the hospital, she said, Butler's tumor went undetected until a week before he died because he lacked insurance for proper testing.

"The grace of God is what we work under," she said. "But we also tap into every resource God has provided - including government."