President Barack Obama’s campaign to woo growing Hispanic communities in southern states being thwarted by his simultaneous campaign to regulate their neighborhood churches, both Catholic and evangelical.
The proposed regulation “has caused an incredible amount of consternation and angst in the Hispanic community. … It is un-American to tell my pastor, my minister, my priest that they have to violate what they believe in,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
The conference represents 18,000 non-Catholic churches and 15 million Hispanic evangelicals, or roughly one third of Hispanics in the United States.
Evidence of a breach was released Feb. 8, when a Rasmussen poll showed that 65 percent of Catholics opposed the proposed regulation, which claims the federal government has the authority to fine religious groups that don’t offer their employees health-insurance with free contraception services.
That percentage is likely higher among white swing-voting Catholics in the must-win states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and significantly lower among Hispanic voters in southern states.
However, Obama’s deputies are seeking to win 65 percent or more of the Hispanic vote, to offset losses among white voters. In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of all Catholics, and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Rodriguez said the proposed regulation is changing Hispanic evangelicals’ friendly attitudes towards the Obama administration. “All of the sudden it was turned around,” he said. It is “a key moment for how the religious community will support the administration going forward,” he said.
“The federal government is coming after us. … It is an unprecedented level of intrusion into the free exercise of religion. … Across the board, our conversation is that is a line too far,” said Rodriquez, who has repeatedly clashed with Republicans on such issues as immigration rules.
Already, he said, “we are hearing Hispanic voters who supported Obama in 2008 saying ‘We cannot support Obama in 20012.’”
The breach with Rodriguez and other Hispanics clerics is a critical element of a widening split between the Democratic Party’s growing anti-religious progressive wing and the shrinking — but still important — ranks of Democrats who are friendly towards religion.
The fracture is visible on the Hill, where Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut have announced low-key opposition to Obama’s Jan. 20 direction.
The decision, however, is being applauded by many more Democrats, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jeanne Shaheen.
Many Democratic legislators whose districts include significant blocs of religious groups have stayed quiet. That list includes Senators Patrick Leahy, Debbie Stabenow and Sherrod Brown.
Vice President Joe Biden has not commented on the directive, even though his focus during the 2012 campaign includes outreach to white Catholics in northern swing-states.
Obama created the controversy when he approved a Jan. 20 directive that says religious congregations and organization will be fined if they decline to buy health insurance for their employees that includes no-cost contraception and some abortion-related services.
Obama’s decision was based on portions of the Democrats’ 2010 health care law, which puts most of the nation’s medical sector under stringent government supervision.
Obama exempted only smaller churches that employ people of their own faith. He included many churches’ affiliated civil-society projects, hospitals, universities, schools, charities and other centers that serve the public. Larger churches that also offer day care, job counseling and charitable services could be included under the federal ukase, especially if they do not refuse to hire or aid people from other denominations.
Although the Catholic Church has the largest array of civil-society activities — and the most outspoken opposition to contraceptives, abortion-related services and state oversight of church activities — Obama’s rule seeks to extend the state’s regulatory power to all denominations’ activities.
If those religious civil-society services are shut down by the new rule — or any follow-on rules — they’ll likely be replaced by government-run services, directed by secular professionals allied with the Democratic Party.
In 2010, Obama’s deputies claimed they had as much legal power to regulate religious groups’ hiring decisions as they have to regulate companies’ hiring practices. In January, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that claim.
Despite the uproar, Obama’s decision may be difficult to reverse.
One of his top political strategists, David Axelrod, however, hinted at a compromise.
“We’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” he told an MSNBC interviewer Feb. 7.
But Obama made the final decision himself, and reportedly has been very confident in his own political judgment.
Moreover, the far-reaching decision is strongly supported by Obama’s feminist and progressive supporters, who want the federal government’s moral backing for contraceptive services. Obama needs their enthusiasm in November.
The possibility of a walk-back declined Feb. 8, when Obama reassured Democratic legislators that he would hold to his position, according to media reports. His press secretary, Jay Carney, said the administration would insist that all employers provide health insurance with free contraception services to their employers.
The rule “seems to me to be an incredibly stupid move. … It is politically like practicing auto-amputation,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which represents the Southern Baptist Convention, and which has offered to aid Catholics’ opposition to the new decision.
Obama, Land said, is “cutting off his own arms and legs.”
Unless the administration backtracks and says “sorry, we apologize,” said Rodriguez, once November comes, “they’ll be sorry.”