Obama’s church-state spin: free condoms vs. Catholic dogma

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama’s deputies and his progressive allies are trying to convert the damaging controversy over federal regulation of religious groups into an advantageous fight against Catholic bishops over access to contraception.

The portrayal, if successful, could boost support among younger women, while reducing unexpected losses among religious voters in critical swing-states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“The idea that an employer — a Catholic bishop — can say you’re not going to get access to insurance coverage … that’s downright creepy,” said Jon O’Brien, president of an abortion-choice advocacy group, Catholics for Choice. “American women get really mad when people start messing with their contraception,” he told The Daily Caller.

“Let’s remember who this controversy is really about — the women of America,” said a Feb. 8 op-ed by three Democratic senators. “Too many women struggle to pay for birth control… Improving access to birth control is good health policy and good economic policy,” said the op-ed, by Sens. Barbara Boxer, Jeanne Shaheen and Patty Murray. “The millions of American women who choose to use contraception should not be forced to follow religious doctrine, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.”

The Democrats’ frequent references to bishops and contraception allows them to spur their anti-religious base while also offering a moderate message about health and contraception to the general public.

A comparable two-level communications strategy was used by President George W. Bush to show his support for religious causes. For example, he used biblical allusions and phrases to package moderate political messages and demonstrations of sympathy with evangelicals and other Christian groups. When Bush was in office, this practice was routinely described by reporters as a “dog whistle” to Christians.

“We stand with President Obama and Secretary Sebelius in their decision to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential preventive care for women,” said a Feb. 8 statement from a group of 23 smaller-scale progressive religious groups, including O’Brien’s Catholics for Choice. “We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform… We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception,” the groups said.

The spin was aided Feb. 7 when two polls were released showing that Americans, including Catholics and political independents, support the inclusion of contraceptive coverage in employer-provided health insurance. The poll by Public Policy Polling, for example, showed that 56 percent of voters support employer-provided birth control benefits, and 37 percent oppose those benefits. Catholic wmen shared similar views, said the poll.

Neither poll, however, showed how the public views federal regulation of all religious groups’ ethical standards. (RELATED: Boehner accuses Obama of attacking religious freedom over contraceptives)

The focus on contraception may spur younger women to support Obama in November. That demographic strongly supports federal aid programs, and aided Obama in 2008. But Obama’s support among that group has declined since 2008, partly because of the stalled economy, high unemployment and growing student debt.

On Feb. 8 White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration would not retreat from what he said is its policy to provide all women with free contraceptive services. The decision exempt clerics and other employees within churches and other places of worship, but not employees at religious-run hospitals, schools, universities and charities, such as the Salvation Army.

“The discussion is how can we implement this policy try to allay some of the concerns that have been expressed [by religious groups, but] there is no change in ensuring that women have access to these important services,” Carney said.

The progressives’ spin about contraception is influencing media coverage, and sidelining the religious groups’ worries about the state’s effort to regulate religious practice.

For example, a Feb. 8 article in Politico reported the dispute as “an increasingly ugly election-year controversy over birth control coverage.” Similarly, most White House reporters attending the daily press briefings describe the issue as a controversy over contraception, not federal regulation of religion.

Still, Carney has faced an unprecedented number of skeptical questions from White House reporters trying to learn about Obama’s decision, his advisers and a possible compromise.

Obama created the controversy on Jan. 20, when his deputies announced they would direct religious groups’ charities, schools and universities to purchase health insurance policies that provide free contraceptives to their employees.

The directive is one outgrowth of the far-reaching 2010 health sector law, dubbed Obamacare, which also sets fines for religious groups that don’t comply with federal direction.

Obama’s decision was immediately opposed by a wide range of religious groups, who say it contradicts religious freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. Numerous Republican politicians, including the Republican leaders in the House and Senate, have also strongly opposed the Jan 20 directive.

“The Obama administration’s decision to trample over the religious liberty of Catholic charities is a frightening sign of how far Democrats will go to impose their government takeover of healthcare,” said a Feb. 8 statement from the National Republican Congressional Committee. “In a country founded on religious liberty, Democrats have now done the unthinkable,” said the statement.

The Jan. 20 decision has rallied diverse religious groups, despite their differences, said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which represents the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We’ve already told the [Catholic] bishops, ‘We’re all in,’ [and will] do anything we can do to oppose this,” Land told The Daily Caller. His denomination does not oppose contraception, but does oppose abortion.

Obama’s Jan. 20 directive would also force religious groups to fund insurance that provides the morning-after pill to their employees.  The after-the-fact contraceptive is condemned by some religious groups as a form of early-stage abortion.

White House officials are also likely to lose once the issue gets to the courts, said Land.

For example, in 2011, administration lawyers argued that federal employment law could treat religious groups like commercial employers, but lost in January when the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed a “ministerial exemption” to employment law. The case was Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

Given the political costs and the constitutional obstacles, White House officials are likely pushing against churches because they have a sincere ideological hostility to religious groups’ influence in society, he said.

“If they’re not doing it out of conviction, they’re dumber than I thought,” Land said.

Progressives say the Jan. 20 directive will have no impact on religious freedom.

“It is Orwellian [that religious groups] are saying their religious liberty is being infringed… it is bogus,” O’Brien said. The Constitution protects people’s freedom of religion and their freedom from religion, he said. Employees at church-run enterprises should be allowed to choose their own medical services, without being overruled by their employers, he said.

Employees who have access to church-funded contraception won’t be forced to use it, he said, so “no-one’s religious freedom is being impinged.”

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