New Dem emphasis on social issues pushes churches into 2012 election

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The Democrats’ election-year demand for regulation of religious groups’ activities leaves believers no practical option but to launch a defensive political campaign against President Barack Obama, Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks told The Daily Caller.

“The only hope for Americans and the Catholic Church to win on this issue is for them to change presidents,” said Franks, a Baptist, who chaired a Feb. 28 House Judiciary Committee hearing on the new regulation requiring some religious organizations to provide insurance that covers family planning services.

An emphasis on the importance of partisan power, rather than just reasoned arguments about fairness and justice, is already shaping conservative religious groups’ response to Obama’s unprecedented mandate, instituted by the Department of Health and Human Services on Feb. 10.

“I think what we’re finding across the board … [is] a very partisan atmosphere,” Bishop William Lori, who heads the new religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told TheDC. “It is hard to know [if Democrats can be persuaded, but] it is feeling quite an uphill battle,” he said.

The Catholic Church avoids electoral fights, said Lori, who then sketched out a determined policy advocacy campaign that runs to November.

“It is up to people to make up their own minds on how to vote, but I think it is up to bishops to teach, and then to teach, and then to teach some more,” he said, adding that the Obama mandate “is the tip of the iceberg.”

“We didn’t go looking for this” fight, Lori said. “The love of my life is to be a pastor of souls and to be a provider of services, and I’d much rather be doing that right now.”

Advocates of the Democratic position have repeatedly portrayed opposition to the Feb. 10 mandate as an effort by the Catholic Church to stop women’s use of contraception. That strategy has spurred some support from single women, an increasingly important piece of the Democratic base. However, it also threatens to galvanize election-day opposition from swing-voting Catholics in Midwest states.

Despite the risk of backlash, however, the Democrats’ determination to emphasize social issues before the election was again showcased at the Feb. 28 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

“A woman’s right to access birth control cannot be limited by the government,” insisted Rep. John Conyers, the senior Democratic leader on the House Judiciary Committee.

“Science backs up the policy of the administration,” he declared, adding, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the committee, this is established science.”

New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler argued that the mandate does not violate Constitutional provisions protecting religious freedom. “The government chooses to accommodate religious beliefs even when it is not constitutionally required,” he announced.

In fact, opposition to the mandate, Nadler argued, may be unconstitutional.

“I fear that those who continue to object [to Obama’s religious regulation] really seek to block women’s access to contraceptive services altogether, but the Constitution does not grant them that right,” he claimed.

Denying even some women free contraceptives would “enable one group to impose their religious views on others who do not share them, and that is not permitted by the Constitution,” he continued.

Congressional Republicans such as Frank said that the Democrats’ arguments are also driven by their support for Obama’s ambitious health care reform agenda.

Obama won’t compromise, said Frank, because “any compromise on the part of the president undermines his fundamental goal of imposing government-run health care on everyone.”

Unfortunately for church groups, Frank said, “Religious freedom gets in the way [of that goal]… it is going to be a victim of that goal.”

Republicans also argue that Obama and like-minded progressives are trying to entirely subordinate civil society groups — including churches, charities and companies — to federal directives. For example, the Feb. 10 directive came only a month after a White House effort to impose routine commercial hiring rules on religious denominations was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court.

Obama’s Feb. 10 mandate stems from The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The mandate requires religious groups to provide their employees with health insurance that funds free contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs. The employees of churches and other houses of worship would be exempted, if their employers pass a government test.

The mandate extends federal regulations of churches into moral issues, sparking opposition from numerous churches, but especially the Catholic Church.

In a brief Feb. 10 statement, Obama said that some church-affiliated groups, such as hospitals, charities and universities, would not have to fund the unwanted services. Instead, he announced, the federal government would make the groups’ commercial insurance companies provide the birth-control services for free to employees. The Obama administration has characterized this move as a “compromise.”

The president did not explain how his office has the constitutional power to make companies give away free services.

Additionally, Obama did not explain how many women could not get free or cheap contraceptives through alternative options, such as the government-funded Title X program or via the free market.

The Catholic Church is the most prominent opponent of the new regulation but a wide spectrum of civil-society groups and advocates have spoken out against the new mandate. The Catholic Church opposes all elements of Obama’s edict, largely because it sees marriage as the proper avenue for sex, and contraception as sinful. But many of the other opponents do not oppose contraception services, and some do not oppose abortion.

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