Catholic bishops ratcheted up the pressure on President Barack Obama’s birth control mandate on Tuesday, calling for the faithful to protest plans to force employers to provide contraceptives in their health insurance plans.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it is “getting harder and harder” to believe Obama’s commitment to religious freedom, while Cardinal Donald Wuerl , the archbishop of Washington, said it is time to “speak up and protest.”
The extra push came on the same day that a new Rasmussen Reports poll showed that Obama’s popularity has plummeted among Catholics, with 44 percent saying they strongly disapprove of the job the president is doing.
"Does the federal government have the right to tell a religious individual or a religious entity how to define yourself?" Dolan said during an interview with The Associated Press in Rome, where he is due to be elevated to cardinal on Saturday. "This is what gives us greater chill."
Dolan said the concession made by the administration, which takes the responsibility for providing contraceptive services away from religious-backed organizations such as churches, schools, and universities and puts it on to the insurers, did not go anywhere far enough.
Dolan initially termed the compromise as a step in the right direction after hearing about it on Friday morning. But by the end of the day, he had altered his position. Before leaving for Rome, he issued a statement saying the “lack of clear protection . . . is unacceptable and must be corrected.”
In the AP interview, Dolan pointed out that many Catholic institutions are self-insured, so the moral issue remained unchanged.
"Was what was intended to be a concession, and what gave us a glimmer of hope at the beginning . . . really just amount to a hill of beans?” Dolan said. “It seems as if it does."
He said he would support Republican-backed legislation now under way in Congress that would allow any employer to deny birth-control coverage if it is against their religious or moral beliefs. The White House on Monday termed the proposed legislation "dangerous and wrong."
Dolan said the U.S. bishops will now work hard to support that legislation. "I couldn't see why the president would have any consternation, because he said to me that religious freedom remains sacrosanct. Well, let's legislatively guarantee it," he said.
Cardinal Wuerl went one step further by saying it is time for members of all faiths to protest the move. “People need to speak up,” he said on the Fox News show “America’s Newsroom.” He described the mandate as forcing the church to pay for “immoral activities.”
“We still have to get to the more basic issue and that is the fundamental freedom of religious faith-based groups to carry out their ministry unimpeded by government directives.
"There's one thing in the heart of this nation that we're counting on, and that's the basic fairness of the American people," Wuerl added.
The White House made clear at the weekend that it has no intention of changing the regulations for a second time. “Our policy is clear,” Chief of Staff Jacob Lew told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Obama’s re-election campaign has been buoyed by previous reports that suggest most Catholics ignore their church’s teachings on contraception and support his mandate. However, the new Rasmussen poll suggests it may be taking a toll.
Obama won the Catholic vote at the last election by an estimated 54-45 percent over Republican candidate John McCain, but now 59 percent say they are at least somewhat disappointed with his performance with 44 percent saying they strongly disapprove.
Two of his possible opponents in November, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, are members of the church, so the president could face a collapse of the Catholic vote. Father-of-seven Santorum has strongly condemned the contraceptive mandate.
“This has nothing to do with access," he said within hours of the compromise being announced. "This is having someone pay for something that shouldn't even be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item.
“This is something that is affordable, available. You don't need insurance for these types of relatively small expenditures,” Santorum said.
“This is simply someone trying to impose their values on somebody else, with the arm of the government doing so. That should offend everybody, people of faith and no faith that the government could get on a roll that is that aggressive."
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