When Obama administration officials reiterated last month that religiously-affiliated employers would have to provide their employees with insurance that covers contraception, they also granted those employers an extra year to comply with the mandate. No doubt they had hoped that the extra year would keep this controversy from too greatly infecting Barack Obama’s reelection effort.
As it happens, that might have been a miscalculation. The determination of a few will keep this in the public eye. In the first place, the GOP candidates have seen in this issue yet another opportunity to attack not only the Obama administration, but also each other. Just today, for example, Newt Gingrich compared Mitt Romney’s 2005 decision to require all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims with the president’s mandate. Romney, for his part, has also spoken out against the mandate.
Off the campaign trail, at least one group dedicated to religious freedom has made a signature issue of this. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has been hard at work to reverse the mandate since it first surfaced as a part of Obamacare. Last year, the nonprofit legal foundation filed the first lawsuits against the administration’s decision — lawsuits to protect Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic liberal arts school in North Carolina, and Colorado Christian University in Denver from funding, facilitating or paying for drugs that are in direct violation of the religious beliefs the schools espouse. That hints at the mandate’s likely final destination: The courts will decide on its constitutionality.
The White House insists that there are no “constitutional rights issues” surrounding the mandate, but Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel at The Becket Fund, says otherwise.
“The administration has seen the writing on the wall,” Smith said in a statement. “They know that this mandate cannot survive constitutional scrutiny. … So the administration is trying to delay the inevitable judgment day.”
Meanwhile, as of 1 p.m. ET today, 24,067 Americans had signed a petition to ask the administration to rescind the mandate. The petition was posted to “We The People,” an application hosted by Whitehouse.gov, on Jan. 28, and opponents have until Feb. 27 to collect 25,000 signatures to trigger a response from the White House.
Supporters of the mandate have also mobilized, though. Nearly 12,000 pro-mandate Americans have signed a petition to request the administration to “stand strong” on it. That petition was posted to “We The People” on Feb. 3, so supporters have until March 3 to collect enough signatures to trigger a White House response.
The issue is interesting for the way it has divided support and opposition along somewhat unpredictable lines. Non-Catholic, pro-contraception pundit Kirsten Powers, for example, recently wrote a column that strongly chastised the administration for its decision.
“I’m not Catholic. I support contraception. But this is madness,” Powers wrote. “Regardless of how the courts rule, the administration has planted its flag on the wrong side of history on this issue. The government’s disregard for the fundamental right of freedom of religion is chilling and should cause all Americans concern.”
On the flip side, a poll released today by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that a slight majority — 52 percent — of Catholics actually support the president’s policy. That percentage dwindles among Catholic voters, though — just 45 percent of voting Catholics support the mandate.
It’s no secret that plenty of Catholics disregard the Church’s teaching about contraception — and that’s probably what’s behind the numbers in the PRRI poll. Once a person grasps the religious liberty implications of this issue, though, it becomes another matter entirely — as opposition from Powers and other liberals indicates. Perhaps the president thought he was politically savvy to threaten religious freedom by attacking an already-unpopular position of the Catholic hierarchy — but, by this, he’s bound to learn that Catholics aren’t alone in their desire to freely exercise their faith.