The Obama administration's new mandate that religious organizations pay for their workers' birth control has become a bludgeon for Republican culture warriors, as social issues have surged to the forefront in the presidential campaign.
Conservatives who believe religious freedom always trumps gender equity in the public arena are outraged. But so too are Roman Catholic and evangelical moderates who have stuck with President Barack Obama, an abortion rights supporter, because of his 2008 pledge to reduce the abortion rate and find common ground among religious and secular Americans. These backers say the administration could have easily avoided the controversy by including broader religious exemptions already in place at some federal agencies.
After two weeks of unrelenting condemnation led by the nation's Catholic bishops, the White House has responded by hinting at some compromise in how the requirement is enforced. Administration officials insist any accommodation for religious groups will leave in place contraceptive coverage, although they haven't said how. But even the suggestion of a revision, no matter how limited, has infuriated Democrats the president hoped to please with the regulation. As the debate rages, women's groups, liberal religious leaders and health advocates are rallying in favor of the broadest contraceptive coverage that would include Catholic employers.
"We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family-planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services," read a statement Wednesday from liberal religious leaders representing Reform and Conservative Jews, Methodist and Episcopal groups, among others. "The administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care."
The conflict is erupting as GOP candidates compete for the title of the true conservative in the presidential race. The contraception debate is tailor-made for the fight.
Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, told Ohio Republicans that the policy was "the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic Church." Rick Santorum, also Catholic, said the administration was trying to "use their power to force people" to violate their beliefs.
Mitt Romney, who mostly avoids religious specifics to deflect attention from his Mormonism, has also taken up the issue. In Colorado, Romney called the policy an "assault on religion," and "a real blow ... to our friends in the Catholic faith."
White House spokesman Jay Carney called it "ironic that Mitt Romney is criticizing the president" for a policy that Carney described as identical to the one Romney followed as Massachusetts governor.
House Speaker John Boehner said in a speech from the floor Wednesday that the Health and Human Services Department mandate was "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom." If the president doesn't reverse the new policy, Congress will, Boehner said.
The debate is stealing attention from where Obama wants it, on the improving economy, and could alienate moderate voters.
Obama, who is Protestant, won the presidency partly because of his ability to attract religious moderates, including white Catholics and some evangelical voters. In a much-quoted 2006 speech at the Call to Renewal conference, organized by the evangelical anti-poverty group Sojourners, Obama said secular Americans were wrong to ask churchgoers to "leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." But he also said religious groups must recognize "ground rules for collaboration" and the importance of church-state separation. Obama reaffirmed the importance of religion just last week in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, saying his faith is a driving force on economic policy and other matters.
In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of the total Catholic vote, compared to 45 percent for Republican John McCain. The battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are home to a significant number of Catholics. Once reliably Democratic, Catholics are now heavily courted swing voters.
The religious freedom issue resonates across faith traditions, but is of special concern to religious conservatives. For decades, Christian right activists have been fighting against what they call a war on religion, ever since the Supreme Court ended sectarian prayer in schools and legalized abortion. As acceptance of gay marriage grows, religious conservatives increasingly view themselves as a besieged minority in an ever more permissive society. Catholic leaders have taken to calling the church the true counterculture.
However, the contraceptive mandate has infuriated many Catholics regardless of political ideology because it could potentially damage what they consider the pride of their church: the multibillion-dollar Catholic-run network of hospitals, schools, colleges, homeless shelters and food pantries that mostly employ and serve members of other faiths. The Health and Human Services regulation includes an exemption only for religious groups who primarily serve and employ members of their own faith. Noncompliance is punishable by fines that could bring financial ruin. The option of self-insurance, a common religious exemption in state mandates for birth control coverage, is not available under the federal health care law.
"I don't think this is the president's best judgment," said Douglas Kmiec, a prominent conservative legal scholar and Catholic who has been excoriated by bishops and conservative activists for backing Obama, starting four years ago. "I've got a great deal of concern that he has caused for himself an enormous problem with my fellow Catholics that he didn't need and that will indeed place his re-election in jeopardy."
The mandate has been an embarrassment for Kmiec and other moderate Catholics. While they have defended the president, some bishops and activists have labeled Democrats the "party of death." Kmiec was denied Holy Communion by one priest and excoriated by another from the pulpit. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents some 600 hospitals, faced down American bishops by providing key support for Obama's health care overhaul.
Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent Catholic and former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, resigned as a trustee at the conservative Catholic Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2008 so the school would not be targeted by critics who accused him of abandoning the church by backing Obama.
Cafardi said this week he was disappointed by the tight religious exemption in the mandate and hoped some compromise can be reached during the one-year grace period the administration has offered religious groups. "But what is so wrong is characterizing this as Obama's war on the Catholic church," Cafardi said. "Politicians will use the church for their purposes any time they can. I think the church needs to be careful to not let itself become a political tool of the left or the right."
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Rachel Zoll covers religion for The Associated Press.