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Contraceptives, religious freedom: Are we in a new culture war?

By Brianna Keilar and Eric Marrapodi, CNN
updated 3:08 PM EST, Fri February 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Contraception debate opens up new front in culture wars
  • Abortion, gay marriage? Politicians have moved on to religious freedom, other issues
  • Some want to extend exemption for churches to any employer

The White House (CNN) -- Welcome to the culture wars 2.0, where the front lines now are religious freedom and contraceptives. Abortion? Gay marriage? Those are so last year.

The White House seems to have assuaged the concerns of liberal and moderate religious voices, particularly Catholics, who complained that the U.S. Health and Human Services mandate on contraceptive coverage violated religious freedom of conscience. The policy now includes a wide exemption for religious groups; requires insurance companies, instead of religious employers, to foot the bill; and still includes a year to hammer out the details.

But now, the issue is firmly entrenched in a political battle on Capitol Hill. Republicans are seizing on the issue as an opportunity to push back on the Affordable Care Act, which they gleefully call "Obamacare." Democrats, meanwhile, are punching back, saying that rolling back the mandate is a slap in the face to women and that this is exclusively a women's health issue.

Political shots were fired from both sides at a Thursday hearing convened by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Fireworks at House contraception hearing
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The hearing, titled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" featured conservative religious voices from across the spectrum, most of whom were male.

Contraception fight on Capitol Hill

"Today's hearing is a solemn one. It involves freedom of conscience," Issa said at the beginning of the hearing.

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The Most Rev. William Lori, the Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which denounced the compromise last week, saying it still raised "serious moral concerns."

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, testified: "The administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious."

Craig Mitchell, an associate professor from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the HHS policy, "... is not just wrong for religious conservatives, it's wrong for all Americans."

The Democratic women on the committee slammed Republicans for not allowing a female witness on the first panel -- a Georgetown University law school student chosen by Democrats to appear in support of the policy.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, took offense to the overwhelming majority of men on the witness list. "I want to know -- where are the women?" she asked.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., raised her voice against Issa's lineup. "We've been denied the right to have a witness!"

Two women invited by the Republicans -- Dr. Laura Champion and Allison Dabbs Garrett -- later testified during a second panel in the afternoon.

The Obama administration has largely satisfied moderate and liberal Catholics whose objections to the policy prompted the change. They point to religious groups like the Catholic Health Association, which initially opposed the HHS mandate but now support the compromise.

"The president's accommodation both recognizes the institution's religious identity while also maintaining affordable health care for all Americans," James Salt, the executive director of Catholics United, told CNN. Salt was part of the driving force of liberal Catholic groups that pushed the White House hard to make the change to the policy.

If the fight with moderate and liberal religious voices has ended, the battle on Capitol Hill continues. Both sides are appealing to their bases, with Republicans seeing an opportunity to chip away at the president's signature health care reform law. They have proposed legislation in the in the Senate and the House to repeal the contraception policy and allow any employer -- not just religiously affiliated ones -- to reject the requirement.

On Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, said at a news conference on the new bills, "No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job."

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who led the charge in Congress to pass Obama's health care bill when she was speaker, said the issue was about women's access to health care. "Imagine, they're having a panel on women's health and they don't have any women on the panel. Duh. What is it that men don't understand about women's health and how central the issue of family planning is to that?"

"The Catholic vote, in particular those moderate Catholics in the middle who can swing one way or the other, they are always highly sought-after political prizes," said John Allen, a CNN Vatican analyst and reporter for the National Catholic Reporter.

"Forty-five percent of those Catholics are going to vote for the Democrat no matter what, and 45% of the Catholics are going to vote for the Republican no matter what. So the game is always for those 10% of Catholics in the middle. But of course, you're talking about a pool of people over the age of 18 who are eligible to vote, of about 4 million people, and they tend to be heavily concentrated in states that are battleground states, places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Southwest, Texas and so on," Allen said.

"There's a thick political subtext here, which is both Republicans and Democrats would like to define the other side as hostile to the interest of those centrist Catholics who could swing either way," he said.

Senior Obama administration officials say they are confident they have assuaged the concerns of those middle-of-the-road Catholics and were not aiming to win over Catholics and other religious leaders because they say nothing would have appeased them short of a complete reversal of the policy.

But one thing is for sure: This issue is not going away.

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