Politics
President Obama speaks on the economy Catholic Georgetown University President Obama speaks on the economy Catholic Georgetown University's Gaston Hall in Washington, Apr. 14, 2009. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images  

Obama’s deputy downplays church-state controversy

Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

On Sunday, the White House tried to suppress the growing constitutional controversy created by its unprecedented demand that U.S. religious organizations fund government priorities they abhor.

President Barack Obama’s Feb. 10 announcement that the services would be provided free of charge by the insurance companies hired by churches, not by the churches directly, “should put this issue to rest,” said White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew on Fox News Sunday.

Lew’s appeal came as GOP advocates and their allies stepped up their efforts to highlight Obama’s directive and predicted that it would damage Obama’s support in November.

The president’s announcement “does not force an institution that has religious principles [against the mandated services] to offer or pay for benefits they find objectionable,” Lew said. “But it guarantees a woman’s right to access. We think that’s the right solution.”

Lew precluded any further change in the policy, which has been applauded by progressive leaders, including the presidents of abortion-provider Planned Parenthood and of the Catholic Health Association.

“We think this is right way to go… Our policy is clear… We have set out our policy,” he said on Fox.

The Feb. 10 statement, which was pitched as a White House “accommodation” of critics’ concerns, revised a Jan. 20 version of the policy that required religious congregations to pay for health insurance services that they are against. In this case, the insurance services include contraceptives and abortion-related drugs.

The Feb. 10 policy exempts some churches that employ members of their own faith. It covers insurance for people who are employed by religious groups’ charities, hospitals and universities, as well as by some of the larger churches that also provide services such as day-care, job training, food banks or drug counseling.

A wide variety of religious denominations and civil-rights groups have decried the initiative, including some that do not view contraception or abortion as abhorrent. The groups — which include Catholic, evangelical, Baptist and Jewish leaders — say Obama’s regulation violates the First Amendment’s bar on state regulation of churches.

The amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“I’m not a Catholic but I stand in 100 percent solidarity with my brothers and sisters to practice their belief against government pressure,” read a Feb. 10 statement from Rick Warren, pastor of the California-based Saddleback Church, who was asked by Obama to give a religious invocations at the 2009 inaugural. “I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do.”

“Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical, said during a Feb. 10 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

The reaction to the controversy seems to have been far greater than expected by Obama and his deputies. The New York Times, for example, reported that Obama was “fed up,” and that a consultant said “we were getting killed” by the reaction.

Also, Rasmussen poll showed that 65 percent of Catholics opposed the directive. If that opposition holds, it could greatly reduce Obama’s election-day support among white and Hispanic Catholics in swing states.

Both Obama and Lew acknowledged the political importance of the church versus state argument. On Sunday, for example, Lew said the Feb. 10 accommodation “addressed the core issue” of religious independence.

White House officials have also tried to spin the controversy as religious opposition to contraception for women. The apparent goal i spur support among progressives and women. Many of those voters are demoralized by the sour economy, but also support Democratic-designed regulation of sexual activity, such as regulations that force other people to pay for their contraceptives.

“Let’s just be clear: Every woman has a right to access all forms of preventive health, including contraception… there are others who opposed women’s access to contraception. They have different views than we do,” Lew said on Fox News.

This spin has been accepted by the many publications that have portrayed the church-state fight as a dispute between the administration and Catholic bishops.

Lew’s spin complemented a Feb. 11 attack ad produced by the Democratic National Committee that said that “the Republicans want to take that right [to free birth control] away … who do you think think should make decisions about contraception? You or your employer?”

However, Republican advocates say Obama’s directive was an enormous political mistake. “I think it’s a huge issue… It goes to the heart of what Obamacare is about and what President Obama’s vision of the role of the federal government is about,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said on the Fox news show.

“Conservatives and Republicans have a real opportunity which they haven’t quite taken advantage of yet of … [asking Americans] do you believe in limited government or do you believe that the government should tell us routinely how to conduct every aspect of our lives” Kristol continued.

Democrats, however, say the controversy should be over. “It wasn’t helpful to have [the issue] lingering out there,” Lew said. “I think a lot of good work was done and hopefully this [Feb. 10 accommodation] will now set the issue to rest.”

Monday’s release of the new budget request will likely demote the controversy until the religious and civil-liberties groups organize their expected election-year push-back.