The Obama administration's decision to require Catholic-affiliated institutions to cover contraceptives and sterilization in their employee healthcare plans — a practice that violates a core Catholic belief — is turning into a major political miscalculation for Democrats in the midst of an election year.
The ruling, which could burden universities such as Notre Dame and hospitals with huge fines if they don't comply, has prompted anger among some liberal and progressive Catholics, as well as traditional conservatives and evangelicals.
They say it forces them to choose between a moral and social question — providing medical care in many communities to the poorest of the poor. Catholic hospitals roughly care for one-sixth of the U.S. population annually, according to several studies.
The ruling has been the subject of two letters read on Sundays from Catholic pulpits around the nation. And it's stirring anger in key constituencies in vital swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where a concentration of decades-old Catholic hospitals and universities provides vital services in many cities and towns.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., often touted as a vice-presidential candidate for the eventual GOP presidential nominee, is pushing back with legislation he filed last week to repeal the measure. That's drawing cheers from both Catholics and religious conservatives around the country.
“I’m glad that somebody is listening when they read those letters,’’ said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who sent out copies in English and Spanish for his priests to read on Sunday.
Rubio, a Catholic, has emerged as one of the leading national warriors in the politically explosive cultural war over what sort of healthcare women have access to, according to the Miami Herald.
Rubio has garnered 20 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A version of the bill in the Republican-dominated House stands a better chance of passage than in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
“From a practical standpoint, this will force Catholic organizations to make an unacceptable choice: Ignore a major tenet of their faith, or not provide any insurance to their employees and be punished with a federal fine for violating ObamaCare’s mandate on employers,’’ Rubio wrote in the New York Post on Friday. “As Americans, we should all be appalled by an activist government so overbearing and so obsessed with forcing mandates on the American people that it forces such a choice on religious institutions.’’
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, posted an “Urgent Action Alert’’ over the weekend calling on Catholics to write to their U.S. lawmakers protesting the rule.
The fight is over a provision of the healthreform law — Obamacare — announced on Jan. 20 that would require health insurance plans — including those offered by institutions such as Catholic-affiliated hospitals and universities — to offer free birth control including sterilization.
At Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Philadelphia suburb of Jenkintown, Pa., Monsignor David E. Diamond read the congregation a letter on Sunday from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput urging parishioners to contact members of Congress.
“Write them, call them, visit them — and help them understand the deep resistance of Pennsylvania Catholics to this dangerous ruling,’’ the letter said.
After Mass, John Fruncillo, 65, said he agreed with the clergy.
“I told my wife on the way out that it's about time the church started taking a stand on some of these issues.’’ said Fruncillo, adding that he did not vote for Obama in 2008 and probably would not in 2012.
Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum seized on the issue on Sunday television talk shows, criticizing the Obama administration as misguided and anti-Catholic.
“He [Obama] has basically declared war on the Catholic Church,’’ Gingrich said on “Meet The Press.’’
Asked if the contraceptives issue would backfire on Obama in the election, Gingrich said, “I think there are millions of people who are very disturbed by it.’’
Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week that the contraception ruling could cost Obama the November election because the Catholic vote is concentrated in battleground states.
The White House defended the policy, saying that only institutions such as hospitals that serve a large non-Catholic community would have to offer free birth control. The administration also said the availability of birth control would reduce the number of abortions.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, however, said the rule strikes “an appropriate balance between religious beliefs and access to preventive services for women.’’
More exemptions to birth control ruling are needed, opponents say
To the Catholic Church, people who use contraception are violating the divine plan of God.
“Each act of intercourse must be open to procreation,’’ U.S. Catholic bishops say in their 59-page official statement on marriage.
While polls show a large majority of U.S. Catholics ignore church teaching against contraceptives, Catholic clergy viewed it as forcing Catholic hospitals and other services to skirt church doctrine.
Obama in 2008 won the votes of a 54 percent of Catholics, reversing a Republican majority of the Catholic vote won by George W. Bush in 2004. Catholics are about a quarter of the U.S. populations, with large blocs in such battleground states as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all won by Obama in 2008.
In Wisconsin, Barbara Schrawk said she voted for Obama in 2008 but was “on the fence’’ this year.
“This should not be a political issue,’’ Schrawk, 68, said as she entered St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale.
In the battleground state of Ohio, Donald and Katherine Miller, holding their 5-month-old daughter Anne, compared the Obama administration ruling to forcing a Jewish kosher restaurant to serve pork.
“This is basically forcing Catholics to do something that is against their beliefs — puts them in a place where they have to choose between violating God or violating the laws of the country,’’ said Donald Miller outside a Catholic Church in Cleveland. He said Catholics should defy the law.
But some Catholics said the birth control dispute would not affect their support for Obama this year.
Wally Brunelli, 70, said that while he opposes the use of contraceptives he would support Obama in 2012, as he did four years ago.
“Personally I feel as if this is something that the person themselves . . . should decide,’’ Brunelli said after church in the Milwaukee suburb.
Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron is expected to send a letter expressing his concerns to all 270 parishes in the archdiocese, which oversees 1.3 million Catholics.
Vigneron said the government's move amounts to “discrimination against Americans exercising their right of conscience.’’
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