Published January 31, 2012
While President Obama will deliver another speech on the economy Wednesday in Northern Virginia to keep the focus on jobs, Catholic leaders across the country are warning another issue may blow up in his face come November.
Catholics are fired up over new rules implementing Obama's health care reform law forcing Catholic universities, hospitals, and charities to provide insurance for their employees covering contraception -- even though that violates church teachings.
"When you push people of faith and you tell them the government is going to knock down the wall of separation of church and state and overreach like the Obama administration, you've got a war on your hands," Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, told Fox News.
In an extraordinary move this past weekend, New York Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan and other archbishops throughout the nation had their priests read letters denouncing the Obama administration policy from the pulpit at Sunday Mass.
"Never before has the government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience," Dolan said in a web video that takes the battle online. "This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights. How about letting our elected leaders know that we want religious liberty and rights of consciences restored and the administration's mandate rescinded? We can't afford to strike out on this one."
Pressed on the matter at his daily briefing Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated several times the administration believes it struck an "appropriate balance" in crafting the policy.
"The administration believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services," said Carney. "We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns."
Even some Catholic Democrats are not buying that claim, however, with liberal columnist E.J. Dionne ripping the policy in a Washington Post column. Dionne charged Monday that the president "utterly botched" the issue and "threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus."
A report last year from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit sexual health research organization, found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control despite the church's teachings. According to a Reuters report on the study, only 2 percent of Catholic women rely on natural family planning.
Nevertheless, the bishops have noted in their lobbying campaign that contraceptive coverage would include the so-called "morning after pill," opening the door to even more controversy over abortion.
Carney noted the administration still offers "strong support for existing conscience protections, including those relating to health care providers" and the new rules do not change that.
But Catholic leaders have noted that Catholic hospitals can only invoke the "conscience clause" -- and get an exemption on the new rules -- if they turn away patients of other faiths, something that is also anathema to the church.
"That means we can't say what we've been saying for 200 years, 'Are you hungry?'" retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told Fox News in an interview Tuesday. "We have to say, 'Are you Catholic?' We don't do that."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a rising star in GOP circles who has been talked up as a potential vice presidential pick, jumped into the fray Tuesday by introducing legislation that would block the White House's move.
Donohue said he's been contacted by Protestants, Mormons, Jews, and others who want to join forces with the Catholic League and the bishops to overturn the new rules.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. "They are lining up single file. Quite frankly we are going to take the fight to the Obama administration ... to me it's political suicide."
Catholic voters played a pivotal role in Obama election in 2008 and could be important again in November. Based on Fox News exit polling data, Catholics made up 27 percent of the electorate three years ago, which translates into an estimated 35 million voters.
Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008, a nine-point edge over Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, and White House officials are downplaying any political fallout now.
"We understand that not everyone agrees with it," Carney said of the decision. "All I can tell you is it was made after very careful consideration based on the need to balance ... (religious rights and) the necessity to provide access to preventive services for women was an important consideration."