WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner accused the Obama administration Wednesday of an "unambiguous attack on religious freedom," promising that Congress will reverse a new policy requiring religious schools and hospitals to provide employees with free birth control if the president doesn't.
Escalating a fight that has roiled the presidential race, Boehner demanded that President Barack Obama overturn the policy that Boehner called a violation of First Amendment rights. The administration's mandate has angered religious groups, especially Catholics, who say the requirement would force them to violate their beliefs against contraception, and congressional Republicans.
"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country cannot stand, and will not stand," Boehner, a Catholic and Ohio Republican, said in a rare floor speech.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Republican onslaught continued, with GOP senators vowing to push ahead with legislation to undo the requirement.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., stood with other GOP lawmakers, and called the new rule "an unprecedented affront to religious liberty. This is not a women's' rights issue. This is a religious liberty issue."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the issue wasn't contraception but "whether the government of the United States should have the power to go in and tell a faith-based organization that they have to pay for something that they teach their members shouldn't be done. It's that simple. And if the answer is yes, then this government can reach all kinds of other absurd results."
The contentious issue has pushed social issues to the forefront in an election year that has been dominated by the economy. Abortion, contraception and any of the requirements of Obama's health care overhaul law have the potential to galvanize the Republicans' conservative base, critical to voter turnout in the presidential and congressional races.
The White House, facing a public and political outcry, signaled on Tuesday that a compromise is possible. Options could include granting leeway for a church-affiliated employer not to cover birth control, provided it referred employees to an insurer who would provide the coverage.
Another idea, previously rejected by the administration, calls for broadening the definition of a religious employer that would be exempt from the mandate beyond houses of worship and institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith. That broader approach would track a definition currently used by the IRS, bringing in schools, hospitals and social service agencies that deal with the general public.
Republican White House hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been relentless in assailing the administration, criticizing the president at campaign stops. Romney has accused Obama of an "assault on religion" and Gingrich called the rule an "attack on the Catholic Church."
But Romney has drawn criticism from his GOP rivals and the White House over policies when he was Massachusetts governor.
In late 2005, Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. Some Catholics say the so-called morning-after pill is a form of abortion.
Romney said he did not support the Massachusetts law, which passed despite his veto. But he also said at the time, "My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information."
White House spokesman Jay Carney seized on that policy at his daily briefing Wednesday.
"The former governor of Massachusetts is an odd messenger on this given that the services that would be provided to women under this rule are the same services that are provided in Massachusetts and were covered when he was governor," Carney said.
He called it "ironic that Mitt Romney is criticizing the president" for a policy that Carney described as identical to the one in place in Massachusetts.
Boehner said that if the administration fails to reverse the policy, then Congress will act. He said that in the coming days, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will move ahead on legislation.