Conservative Catholics rally against contraception mandate

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

Conservative Catholic groups are warning Democrats that there may be political ramifications for backing the White House’s controversial contraception mandate.

“If Democrats lose the Catholic vote, I would think they at some point will question whether their allegiance to the far-left social extremists is going to hurt” in future elections, Brian Burch, the president of the conservative website CatholicVote.org, told The Daily Caller.

“We do plan to make sure that faithful Catholics remember this [directive] in November,” said Matt Smith, director of the conservative group Catholic Advocate, told TheDC. Despite progressive efforts to shift the debate to contraceptives, he said, using new media has allowed Catholics to argue that the mandate is a threat to religious autonomy.

“That has a huge impact,” he said.

One prominent example of the progressive pushback against the conservative protests was displayed on Monday when liberal Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne said further resistance to government regulations would convert the Church into “the Tea Party at prayer.”

Dionne’s rhetorical warning-shot to Catholics came the day before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holds its biannual management meeting, dubbed the “administrative conference.”

Roughly 30 bishops will meet in D.C. on Tuesday to set the schedule for this year’s June and November meetings of the nation’s roughly 181 bishops. The June meeting will be held in Atlanta, and will deal with routine issues of doctrine and budgets, as well as the proper response to the regulation, issued Feb. 10, that would force religious-affiliated institutions to provide insurance that covers contraception.

On Monday, Dionne portrayed the meeting as the moment where bishops will either “defend the church’s legitimate interest in religious autonomy [by accepting the Feb. 10 regulation], or… wage an election-year war against President [Barack] Obama.”

Dionne, whose support for the Feb. 10 announcement has been frequently highlighted by White House officials, urged the religious leaders to accept the decision.

“Before the bishops accuse Obama of being an enemy of the faith, they might look for a settlement that’s within reach — one that would give the church the accommodations it needs while offering women the health coverage they need,” he wrote.

Some Catholic advocates shrugged off Dionne’s criticism.

“Name a single bishop that is in support of the mandate? — there isn’t one,” said Burch. “Functionally, [Dionne] is a member of the Obama reelection team, so you can’t take him seriously,” he added.

Dionne is a “cheerleader for the administration,” George Weigel, an influential Catholic theologian, told TheDC.

The Bishops recognize the dispute is over churches’ freedom, not birth control, “and will stay on-message… no matter how much E.J. Dionne disapproves,” said Weigel who is also a fellow at the D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Although the head of the Catholic Health Association and a Jesuit group have endorsed the Feb. 10 regulation, there’s little visible support elsewhere in the church for a federal role in church management.

For example, Fr. Michael Pfleger, a noted progressive Catholic priest in Chicago, declined to comment on the issue, despite several calls from TheDC.

Church officials, along with allied religious leaders in other Christian and Jewish denominations, are trying to avoid direct involvement in partisan politics, even as they rally against the Feb. 10 edict.

Instead, religious leaders are urging their members to get more involved in politics via groups that are organizationally and legally independent of the church, despite sharing similar religious beliefs.

On Mar. 3 for example, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan declared that Church officials will remain focused on religion, but urged believers to get more engaged in politics.

“We leave a lot of the messiness of politics up to you,” he said, adding that Catholics “are called to be very active, very informed and very involved in politics.”

Smith’s Catholic Advocate group has recruited at least one person in every congressional district to spread their message. And the Church is indirectly boosting the effort, Smith said, because “every single bishop in the country issued some form of a public denunciation of this government coercion.”

Burch says he expects “to raise several million dollars at a minimum,” and is already conducting focus groups and producing radio and TV ads.

“We’ve very encouraged by the data we’re seeing out in the states… by and large, whether you’re religious or not, the preference would be for a policy that respects and exempts religious institutions,” he said.

Voters also recognize, he said, that there is “no need for the government to be picking a fight with religions at this time [and] when religious institutions are functioning and are able to work side-by-side with government.”

The potential upside for conservatives in this dispute, he added, is that Obama’s regulation could have as much impact on the 2012 election as gun control had on the 2000 election. That year, Democratic candidate Al Gore lost his home state — and the presidency – in large part because of his support for firearms regulations.

Since then, progressives and liberals have avoided the issue of gun control, and the Supreme Court’s judges have accepted that individuals’ rights to firearms trumps most gun-curbs.

The president’s act requires religious communities to do something they oppose and fund the use of free contraceptives, birth control drugs and abortifacients.

Some religious communities — especially the Catholic Church — have religious objections to recreational sex.

Many other religious communities — evangelical, Baptist, Jewish, Lutheran and others — say the First Amendment’s protections deny Obama the power to regulate religious groups’ practice of their own religion.

Obama’s mandate was first announced Jan. 20. It says that churches that pass a four-part government test can win a conditional exclusion from the mandate.

But schools, hospitals, universities and charities run by religious communities must comply with the mandate, or pay expensive fines, according to the regulation.

On Feb. 10, Obama said he will “accommodate” the objections. He said he would direct health-insurance companies to provide unwanted services for free to employees, instead of having the churches directly pay the insurance companies for those services.

However, Obama did not change the text of the Jan. 20 regulation, which was enacted Feb. 10, and did not acknowledge any error.

Prior to the controversy, White House did not estimate how many women would be aided by the regulation, or why the existing Title X contraceptive program can’t be used to offer free-contraceptives to women.

Since Feb. 10, Obama’s campaign-trail allies have rallied behind the claim that religious groups’ objection to the mandate is part of a “war on women” and seeks to shut down the free market in contraceptives. Democratic advocates say this policy has increased their polling support among women, which has been hurt by the stalled economy since 2009.