By Ros Krasny
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich inserted himself into the long-running controversy about whether religious groups should be allowed to hold services in New York City public schools, and accused Mayor Michael Bloomberg of being "anti-religious."
Gingrich made his comments on Friday in a speech to a coalition of religious leaders in Las Vegas ahead of Nevada's Republican presidential caucuses on Saturday, as he tried to boost support among the state's social conservatives.
His speech, held at Nevada's largest non-denominational church and also webcast, was heavy on rhetoric against what the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker called "secular intellectuals."
The Nevada caucuses mark the fifth contest in the state-by-state competition for the Republican presidential nomination to face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 election. Polls show Gingrich far behind front-runner Mitt Romney in Nevada.
"An anti-religious bigotry defines much of our intellectual elites," Gingrich said. He also scorned certain judges trying to cause "the end of America as we know it" and decried Obama's White House for "a direct war on freedom of religion."
Gingrich, as he has throughout the campaign, accused Obama of anti-religious actions, including "declaring war on the Catholic church."
An evangelical Christian church in New York's Bronx recently lost a years-long battle to force the city to continue allowing religious worship services in public schools on weekends. The case was petitioned all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in December declined to review a lower-court decision.
In response, the city has said it will move to end prayer services held in public schools by dozens of churches and religious groups by February 12.
"This is nonsense. I don't know why Mayor Bloomberg is so anti-religious," Gingrich said, referring to New York's three-term mayor. "I challenge Mayor Bloomberg to open up schools on the weekends."
Some New York state lawmakers and religious groups are trying to enact emergency legislation that would allow the practice to continue.
Throughout his Nevada swing, Gingrich has stepped up attacks on the nation's "elites." At a country and western bar earlier on Friday, Gingrich cited newspaper editors who live in Manhattan high-rises and "ride the subway" as being oblivious to high gasoline prices.
It also was not the first time Gingrich has criticized Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman turned politician. In December, Gingrich said Bloomberg "just wrote a check and bought" the post of New York mayor.
(Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Will Dunham)