Catholic pulpits and pews are increasingly inflamed with talk of a war on religion after the Obama administration's recent decision on employers' birth control coverage.
“There can be no doubt that religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy,” Monsignor W. Ronald Jameson warned on Saturday from inside Washington’s historic Cathedral of St. Matthew. “This is the time to speak up. This is the time for all voices to be heard.”
Jameson’s dire warning to the Catholic faithful was focused on the controversial ruling that President Obama made last week, mandating that all employers, as part of the 2010 health care overhaul, must cover in full the cost of female contraception. The Roman Catholic Church, as a matter of doctrine, opposes the use of birth control.
In an op-ed published Monday in USA Today, the president’s top health official, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, defended the ruling as striking the right balance between respecting religious freedom and providing critical health services to women.
“This is not an easy issue,” Sebelius wrote, adding that the Obama administration had taken pains to make allowances for the church. “We specifically carved out from the policy religious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith. This exemption includes churches and other houses of worship, and could also include other church-affiliated organizations.”
In a rebuttal editorial published on the same day, however, USA Today condemned the rule as “bad policy and bad politics.” If enacted, the paper’s editors said, Catholic-run institutions that employ diverse populations “would be put in the impossibly awkward position of facilitating contraception even though the church teaches that it is ‘intrinsically wrong.’”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also noted the exemption, but told reporters Monday: “Those institutions where women of all faiths, many faiths work need to have the same kind of coverage that all other American women have.”
Leading Catholics and other religious figures pointed out that large Catholic-affiliated organizations – schools and colleges, hospitals, charities and the like – employ tens of thousands of people of all religious faiths, and as such will not qualify for the administration’s exemption. The White House and HHS, in turn, have granted such organizations an extra year to come into compliance with the rule.
On the campaign trail, the Republican presidential candidates have turned the issue into a rallying cry. Front-runner Mitt Romney on Monday used Twitter to appeal to Catholic voters and link them to a petition his campaign crafted. “If you've had enough of the Obama Administration's attacks on religious liberty,” Romney tweeted, “stand with me & sign the petition.”
That was mild compared with the strong medicine doled out by Newt Gingrich. “The Obama administration has declared war on religious freedom in this country,” the former House speaker sternly told reporters in a news conference in Las Vegas on Saturday night. “This is a decision so totally outrageous, an illustration of such radical secular ideology, that I believe [the church’s] hierarchy will oppose it every inch of the way.”
In an interview with Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, John Garvey, the president of Catholic University of America, framed the issue more charitably. “I don’t think that this is a case of the government as out to get religious institutions, as though they’re the focus of its attack. It's more a kind of lack of concern or appreciation for real religious concerns and values,” Garvey said.
“It shows an attitude on the government's part that religion is something we'll protect if it's just happening in church on Sunday, or in the mosque on Friday, but if it has to do with your daily activity or the life you want to lead, it's not something we want to protect.”
What remains uncertain is whether President Obama, who won the Catholic vote in 2008 by a 9 percentage-point margin, will pay a political price for the ruling this coming November.
Even if Gingrich’s prediction of robust opposition from the church hierarchy proves true – and the nationwide spate of sermons devoted to the topic over the last two weekends suggests it will – the predilections of ordinary Catholic parishioners appear more difficult to gauge. Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center has found Catholics as evenly divided over the legality of abortion, for example, as the rest of the country.
However, the importance of the Catholic vote cannot be underestimated. Of the 68 million Catholics in America, roughly 35 million voted in 2008, accounting for 27 percent of the total electorate. And a review of data from seven battleground states – Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin – shows Catholics comprising roughly one-quarter or more of the electorate in each.