Ohio Churches Become Battlefields in Contraception Debate

After Masses last weekend at St. Thomas More Catholic Parish in suburban Cleveland, the Reverend William Bouhall collected signatures opposing President Barack Obama’s requirement that health insurers provide contraceptives.

“As they were signing the petition, people were saying, ‘That doesn’t sound right, father,” Bouhall, pastor at the church, said in a telephone interview. The church also plans to collect signatures after Masses this weekend, he said.

The response in Ohio (STOOH1) churches to Obama’s action has included a letter from Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon that priests read to their flocks, a blast of e-mails that St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Brunswick sent to parishioners and members of Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in suburban Akron mailing postcards to lawmakers, pastors said.

With the nation’s seventh-most-populous state poised to help decide the presidency this fall, the ecclesiastic outreach is forcing the faithful to decide whether the president’s contraceptive policy is a women’s-health issue or an intrusion on religion. Ohio is a microcosm of the nation, and the issue may shift enough votes to swing the Buckeye State, said John Green, a University of Akron professor who specializes in religion and politics.

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‘Assault on Religion’

“To the extent that this is seen as a religious-liberty issue, it could present some problems for President Obama and the Democrats in Ohio because they would be on the wrong side of Catholic identity,” Green said in a telephone interview. As a public-policy issue, it may “on balance favor President Obama.”

On Jan. 20, the administration said it would enforce a requirement of the 2010 health-care overhaul that employers offer contraceptives as part of their health insurance, including hospitals and universities with religious affiliations. After complaints from some church leaders that they would have to violate their tenets, Obama said Feb. 10 that insurance companies must offer birth control directly and pay for it, removing the institutions from the equation.

Republicans, including presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, have all criticized the rule. Romney has said Obama was waging “an assault on religion,” and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said the House would pass legislation to overturn it.

‘Common-Sense Issue’

In Boehner’s state, Obama’s policy angered many members of the Catholic church, which opposes contraception and abortion. Some, however, said that decision would have little effect, because so many of the faithful use birth control. About 98 percent of Catholic women with sexual experience use contraceptives at some point in their lives, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York research organization that compiles reproductive health data.

“The typical woman spends five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant and 30 years trying not to get pregnant, so it’s a common-sense issue for women,” Beth Zaworski, a Catholic nurse from Lorain, said in a Feb. 13 conference call with reporters hosted by groups including NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.

The issue may be more telling in the Midwest, which has more traditional Catholics than other parts of the U.S. because ethnic groups from Eastern and Central Europe settled there, Green said. Catholics composed 18 percent of Ohio’s population in 2010, according to the state’s Catholic Conference.

Losing the Flock

While Obama won the state in 2008 with 51.5 percent of the vote, according to the secretary of state, exit polls showed he lost among Catholics by 47 percent to 52 percent.

A national poll by the Pew Research Center conducted Feb. 8-12 among 1,501 adults found that 48 percent support an exemption to the rule for religious-affiliated institutions and 44 percent said they should be required to cover contraceptives. Among Catholics who have heard at least a little about the issue, 55 percent favor giving an exemption and 39 percent oppose it, the survey found.

“It’s a basic attack on our rights for freedom of religion,” said Trish Shaw, 48, a member of St. Ambrose Church in Brunswick. It’s the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland’s largest parish, with 14,000 members.

The Reverend Bob Stec, Shaw’s pastor, said he shares the view of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that Congress should reject the compromise. Somebody has to pay for the coverage, and those costs eventually would be passed to religious institutions, Stec said in an interview.

Health and Disease

The University of Dayton in Ohio, a Catholic-affiliated institution with more than 7,000 undergraduates, has provided coverage for contraceptives in its health-insurance plan for at least 20 years and doesn’t plan to change it, Teri Rizvi, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

“Our Catholic identity is at the heart of our institution’s mission, but, in light of the importance of the health of our employees and the prevention of disease, we entered into these plans,” Rizvi said.

The university is aligned with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, “which supports a balance between health care and religious freedom,” Rizvi said.

None Since Ike

Other Catholics are ready to make changes. Clem Belter, 77, a retired electrician and Democrat from Brunswick, said he hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Dwight D. Eisenhower. This year, he may.

“When they step on religion, everybody’s affected,” Belter said in an interview yesterday after morning Mass at St. Ambrose.

Opposition to the policy may backfire, said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a Catholic himself. Democrats will reach out to suburban women to argue that Republicans are intruding into their private lives and their health-care choices, Redfern said.

“This issue resonates far beyond the reach of a Catholic bishop,” Redfern said in an interview.

Jane Reilly, 66, a retired public-affairs consultant and Catholic from Fairview Park in suburban Cleveland, said she’s “ashamed of my church.” She said she is grateful Obama “had the courage” to stand up to the bishops and for women’s right to follow their conscience.

We Are Grown-Ups

“It’s about time the bishops realize women are adult, moral-decision makers,” Reilly said in a telephone interview. “People who feel like they can railroad women to do whatever they demand are living in some age that went by and by a long time ago.”

Whether Catholics use birth control is immaterial, said the Reverend David Durkee, pastor of Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in suburban Akron.

“Whether you agree with that teaching or not, the fact is our church does teach it,” Durkee said in a telephone interview. “It’s gone too far.”

Green, the Akron professor, said the issue is thorny for many people, not just Catholics.

“I don’t know anybody that’s against religious liberty; I don’t know anybody that’s against providing people with good health care,” he said. “So how do you fit those things together?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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