Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has joined the chorus criticizing President Obama over a controversial policy that would require most employers, including Catholic hospitals and universities, to include birth control in their employees' health insurance.
Catholic opinion leaders have denounced the policy as an assault on their religious freedom.
Ever since priests first took to their pulpits more than a week ago to attack the new birth control mandate, the administration has been feeling heat from all sides. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was open to exploring changes to "allay some of these concerns."
On the Republican campaign trail this week, Romney gleefully picked up the refrain that the White House is trying to dictate to religious institutions.
"We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right — a right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," he said.
The Obama administration insists it's sensitive to religious liberty, and churches themselves are exempt from the requirement.
But Carney says the administration is also trying to protect another interest: women's access to affordable birth control, even if they happen to work at a Catholic hospital or university.
"We believe that these services are important, and that American women deserve to have access to that kind of insurance coverage, regardless of where they work," he said Monday.
A survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Planned Parenthood suggests most voters agree, including 53 percent of Catholic voters and 63 percent of women.
"These are obviously groups that are going to be really key for the election this fall — swing voter groups. And they're all quite supportive of the birth control benefit," said Tom Jensen, who directed the survey.
Framing The Debate
Political scientist John Green of the University of Akron suspects church leaders will win this argument if they succeed in framing the issue as one of religious autonomy, rather than women's access.
"A lot of people who would be perfectly content to have these kinds of services in their personal health care package might be concerned about the impact on the institutional church," he said.
So supporters of the new policy are belatedly trying to refocus attention in a more popular direction, away from religious freedom and toward women's health care.
Lanae Erickson of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way says that argument is especially persuasive with the independent voters who helped elect Barack Obama three years ago.
"Obama independents were much more secular than independents generally and much more secular than Americans generally. They were more female and they were much more moderate," Erickson said.
That's not to say the new policy hasn't alienated some of Obama's ardent Catholic supporters. But most white Catholics who attend Mass weekly didn't vote for him last time anyway.
While the president and his allies prefer to talk about birth control more than religious liberty, Romney is just the opposite.
When birth control came up during an ABC debate last month, the former Massachusetts governor quickly tried to change the subject.
"Contraception? It's working just fine. Just leave it alone," Romney joked when questioned by ABC debate moderator George Stephanopoulos.
In fact, Romney, along with House Republicans, wants to eliminate government funding for birth control.
Jensen says that puts the GOP front-runner out of step with most Americans.
"He's sort of playing with fire here," Jensen said. "This is definitely an issue that has the potential to be pretty resonant this fall and it's one where congressional Republicans and Mitt Romney really may pay a price at the polls if they try to take this benefit away."
Attempt Toward Compromise
Religious institutions, meanwhile, have another year-and-a-half before the birth control mandate takes effect.
White House spokesman Carney signals there's still time for a compromise.
"There are ways to resolve this issue that ensures we provide that important preventive service to all women ... in a way that also tries to allay some of these concerns," he said.
But crafting a policy to satisfy diverse constituencies and congregations no longer seems a top priority.
Both sides are increasingly preaching to their own choirs.
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