BOSTON (AP) — When he was running to fill the office left vacant by the death of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Republican Scott Brown famously declared: "It's not the Kennedy seat. And it's not the Democrats' seat. It's the people's seat."
Yet as he seeks to win a full six-year term, the freshman Massachusetts senator has been quick to invoke the legacy of the late "liberal lion" — never more vigorously than during the fight in Washington over whether to exempt religiously affiliated institutions from mandated birth control coverage.
Democrats, still stinging over the loss of the seat Kennedy held for nearly half a century to a former Republican state senator, are crying foul.
Brown, who favors giving employers and health insurers broad moral and religious exemptions in health care coverage, has repeatedly quoted a letter that Kennedy, dying from brain cancer, asked President Barack Obama to hand-deliver to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in 2009.
In the letter, Kennedy admitted to "human failings" and asked for the pope's prayers.
But Brown has seized on a portion of the letter in which the prominent Catholic politician tells the Pope that he believes "in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field." Kennedy made the comments in the context of the fight over Obama's health care overhaul bill.
In interviews, an online video message and a new radio ad, Brown argues that Kennedy's letter mirrors his own position.
"Like Ted Kennedy before me, I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith," Brown says in the radio ad, which began running Thursday in Massachusetts.
Democrats say that while Kennedy wanted to protect individual Catholic doctors, nurses and hospitals from being forced to perform procedures like abortions, which the church condemns, Brown would give employers wide latitude to deny benefits like contraception coverage to their workers, including non-Catholics.
"Kennedy was interested in protecting the rights of individuals. Brown is trying to take away the rights of individuals," said John McDonough, a Democrat who served on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions when Kennedy was chairman.
"Brown is taking something Kennedy supported and is exponentially expanding it to something Kennedy never would have supported," added McDonough, now a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Brown's chief Democratic rival, consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, has seized on Brown's decision to co-sponsor the amendment proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
In a new radio ad also released Thursday, Warren said the amendment "threatens women's access to contraception, mammograms, even maternity care."
"It's just plain wrong," Warren says in the ad. "This isn't about the rights of religious institutions. We must respect those rights ... but the president also made sure that women can get the health care they need. That's the right approach."
Obama has offered what he says is a compromise that would allow workers at religious institutions to get free contraception directly from health insurers.
The White House has called the Blunt amendment "dangerous and wrong."
While Warren's ad mentions contraception or birth control four times, Brown's ad focuses instead on the issue of religious freedom, never mentioning contraception.
In invoking the Kennedy legacy, Brown has also pointed to a Kennedy health care proposal from the mid-1990s, which also included language that Brown's campaign said mirrors the amendment Brown supports.
The Kennedy legislation stated that "a health professional or a health facility may not be required to provide an item or service in the comprehensive benefit package if the professional or facility objects to doing so on the basis of a religious belief or moral conviction."
The amendment Brown has co-sponsored would let health plans deny coverage for certain procedures if that coverage "is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan."
The spat over which candidate or party is hewing more closely to Kennedy's beliefs shows just how long a political shadow the late Democrat is casting in Massachusetts more than two years after his death.
While Brown ran for what he dubbed the "people's seat," the Republican has said that he admired Kennedy, even when he disagreed with him.
In a commencement address he delivered last year at Lasell College in Newton, Mass., Brown explained his decision to keep a picture of Kennedy on his office mantel.
"It reminds me not only of somebody I liked and respected, but also of a promise I made to my friends back home to work with people of goodwill wherever I find them," Brown said.
Brown's decision to cast the debate over contraception coverage as an issue of religious freedom in a state with a significant Catholic population could also be an attempt to win over voters uneasy with what they see as an overreach of government authority, regardless of whether they use contraception themselves.
Neither Brown nor Warren is Catholic.
It's not the first time Brown has pushed for a religious exemption.
As a member of the Massachusetts House in 2002, Brown supported an amendment that would have created an exemption for larger church-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities to a bill requiring employers who purchase insurance plans in Massachusetts pay for contraceptives.
The amendment was defeated and Brown ultimately voted in favor of the main bill, which did include an exemption for smaller religious employers that meet the definition of a church or "church-controlled organization."
Brown's campaign said he wasn't willing to scuttle the entire bill over the broader exemption.
Brown, the only Republican in Massachusetts' congressional delegation, is facing a tough re-election campaign.
Although one recent poll showed him with a 9 percentage point lead over Warren, other polls have had the two locked in a tight race. Brown has cast himself as the "underdog" in a state where voters generally favor Democrats.