Republican leaders, seeking to rally conservatives at an annual gathering, accused President Barack Obama of assaulting religious liberty by requiring sectarian schools and hospitals to provide birth-control coverage to employees.
“The Obama administration has crossed a dangerous line,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told hundreds of Republican activists attending the Conservative Political Action Conference today in Washington.
“The federal government will impose a fine on Catholic institutions for no other reason than that the religious beliefs of Catholics run counter to those of a sitting president,” said McConnell of Kentucky. “We will fight this attack on the fundamental right to religious freedom until the courts overturn it.”
The administration’s decision, announced Jan. 20, has quickly entered the presidential campaign. Catholic bishops ordered lectures from pulpits across the country. Republicans view the ruling as a potential liability for Obama, particularly in swing states including Michigan and Pennsylvania with large populations of Catholic voters.
The decision requires employers to cover contraception through their employee health insurance at no added cost to workers. Houses of worship and nonprofit religious groups that primarily employ and serve people of the same religious faith would be exempt, while religious hospitals and universities would not. Nonprofit groups will have until August 2013 to adjust.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has promised that his chamber will pass legislation to overturn the rule.
‘Creating a Backlash’
“Obama attacked the bishops of the Catholic Church, their entire hierarchy of the church,” said the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents thousands of churches on moral and social issues. “He’s creating a backlash that’s driving the social conservatives.”
The public debate follows a months-long struggle within the White House over how broad an exemption to grant to religious organizations. White House advisers sought a middle ground that might accommodate both sides, only to run into legal obstacles, said people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The federal government does not have the power to force religious organizations to pay for things that that organization thinks is wrong,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said at the conservative conference. “The First Amendment still applies, religious freedom still exists,” said Rubio, a potential Republican vice presidential candidate. “This is a constitutional issue.”
RedState.com editor Erick Erickson said Obama “has done something that Jesus himself could not do. He’s united Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Southern Baptists all together in opposition.”
One in four U.S. voters is Catholic, said John Green, director of the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics in Akron, Ohio.
The white Catholic vote accounts for about 16 percent and is divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Those independents make up eight percent to 10 percent of U.S. voters, Green said. In 2008, Green said, Obama won the Catholic vote 54 percent to 46 percent, based on exit polls.
Other themes at the annual gathering include the U.S. tax system, the national debt and proposals to repeal Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Obama has repeatedly “failed” throughout his presidency, Rubio said. “He cannot run on his record.”