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Dan Nejfelt
Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.

Poll: Contraception not seen as a threat to religious liberty

March 15, 2012, 1:57 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

Public Religion Research Institute released the results a new poll today examining  public opinion on the contraception coverage mandate, religious liberty and other related issues. The data are probably causing some discomfort for those desperately trying to frame the contraception debate as a “war on religion.” From PRRI’s press release:

On the heels of a months-long heated debate on religious liberty, a new national survey finds that a majority (56%) of Americans do NOT believe that the right of religious liberty is being threatened in America today. Roughly 4-in-10 (39%) believe religious liberty is under attack.

The new PRRI-RNS Religion News Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, allowed those who said religious liberty is under attack to explain in their own words why they felt the right of religious liberty is being threatened. Despite the recent heavy media focus on contraceptive coverage in the religious liberty debate, only 6% cited the contraception mandate issue. The most frequently cited reasons were perceptions that religion was being removed from the public square (23%) or that government was interfering with religion (20%).

“Some religious leaders, most prominently Catholic officials, have attempted to define the debate on the Obama administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate as a question of religious liberty, but most Americans do not believe religious liberty is under attack today,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO. “Nearly 6-in-10 Catholics do not believe that religious liberty is being threatened. The only religious group in which a majority believes religious liberty is being threatened in America today is evangelicals.”

This survey also finds those most likely to believe religious liberty is under attack are Republicans, white evangelical Protestants, and Americans age 65 and older.

I was also struck by the fact that 73% of millennials and 58% of political independents don’t buy the argument that religious liberty is under attack. That makes for tough sledding in this election and a bleak long-term outlook for conservatives who are pushing this argument for partisan gain. Public opinion is a volatile thing, so it would be a mistake for defenders of the contraception coverage mandate to rest on their laurels, but it’s definitely encouraging that the huge mobilization against it hasn’t persuaded most Americans.

Here’s a breakdown of what people who think religious liberty is at risk see as the specific threats:

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Religious voters in the AL and MS primary exit polls

March 15, 2012, 9:37 am | By Dan Nejfelt

The exit polls in Alabama and Mississippi revealed that Rick Santorum’s strong appeal to social conservatives transcends regional differences, as does Mitt Romney’s reliance on rich voters.

In Mississippi, Santorum won a narrow plurality of evangelicals (35%, compared to Gingrich’s 32% and Romney’s 29%). It broke down almost identically in Alabama, where Santorum, Gingrich and Romney respectively winning 35%, 32% and 27% of evangelicals.

However, Santorum won voters who said candidates’ religious beliefs “matter a great deal” by 15 percentage points in Mississippi and 16 percentage points in Alabama. He also earned support from a whopping 65% of Mississippi voters and 61% of Alabama voters who said “strong moral character” was the most important candidate quality. And once again, Santorum was the runaway favorite among voters who believe abortion should always be illegal.

Once again, Romney’s strongest support came from the wealthy, winning among voters who make over $100k/yr in both Alabama in Mississippi, but coming in third among voters who make less than $50k/yr.

Given that 80% of primary voters in Mississippi and 75% of primary voters in Alabama are evangelical, and that only one quarter of voters in these states had six-figure incomes, Santorum’s victories should hardly have come as a surprise.

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Catholic Bishops Defend Safety Net

March 9, 2012, 2:57 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

Over at Think Progress Alex Seitz-Wald flags the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new letter to Congressional leaders urging protection of funding for programs that uphold human dignity and support struggling families:

Specifically, they singled out spending on health care, Pell Grants, affordable housing — which they called “essential for human dignity” — and food stamps. Just today, Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) panel on government oversight held a hearing on food stamp fraud that critics saw as pretense to gin up sentiment in favor of making cuts to the program.

Good on the bishops for laying out this marker as the federal budget debate begins. As we saw with last year’s fight over the Ryan budget, the faith community can play a key role in ensuring that the debate focuses on moral priorities rather than just dollars and cents.

Once the House GOP’s budget is released, I hope the USCCB steps up the effort to protect the vulnerable even more. As the contraception debate has revealed, they are capable of generating formidable pressure when they choose to do so.

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Same split, different state

March 8, 2012, 2:15 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

The exit polls from Tuesday’s tightly contested Ohio Republican primary closely resemble Michigan’s from last week, with Santorum and Romney’s supporters clearly breaking along religious, ideological and class divides.

Once again, Santorum won white evangelicals (47%, compared to Romney’s 30%), and Romney won Catholics (44%, compared to Santorum’s 31%).

Once again, Romney cleaned up with high-income voters. He beat Santorum by 14 percentage points among those who make over $100K/year and a whopping 29 percentage points among those who make over $200K/year.

Once again, Santorum was the right-wing favorite. He won 48% of “very conservative” voters, compared to Romney’s 30%. Santorum also beat Romney by 9 percentage points among voters who “strongly support” the Tea Party.

Once again, Santorum dominated among anti-abortion voters. Two-thirds of those who say abortion is the most important issue voted for Santorum, and he beat Romney by  16 percentage points among voters who think abortion should always be illegal.

What we have here is a clear divide between the well-heeled establishment and the staunchly conservative base. With Romney now a near-lock to win the nomination, it will be interesting to see if he can broaden his appeal beyond the wealthiest Americans and connect not only with social conservatives, but also with middle- and working-class voters. Given the pitched culture-war battles going on right now, that’s an awfully tall order.

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Blunt Amendment defeated, misinformation continues

March 1, 2012, 4:08 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

birth control pillsAs Kristin mentioned earlier, today was the Blunt Amendment’s day of reckoning in the Senate . Fifty Democratic Senators and retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe did the right thing and voted against this destructive legislation. Sadly, the rest of the Republican caucus and three Democrats (Senators Casey, Manchin and Nelson) voted to give corporate bosses the power to pick and choose which healthcare services their employees and employees’ families may receive.

Via TPM, I saw that Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) released a thoroughly misleading defense of his vote:

“However, the Senate is having a debate as to whether the federal government has the right to bully religious organizations. Let’s be clear, in no way would this amendment deny or interfere with a woman’s access to contraception. This is an absurd allegation. The debate today is about one thing and one thing only; whether the federal government can force religious organizations to provide a service that violates their faith. Supporters of the President’s healthcare law believe the federal government can oppress religious organizations, force individuals to buy a product they may not want, and put personal healthcare decisions in the government’s hands.

First of all, giving every employer the power to deny coverage of any treatment based on any ostensibly moral objection most certainly would interfere with access to contraception. USCCB staffer Anthony Picarello indicated as much when he complained that the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious institutions would not allow Taco Bell owners to deny coverage of contraception. The only way Heller isn’t outright lying is if he A) honestly believes that no employer would refuse to cover contraception – in which case this whole fight would be a mere intellectual exercise, or B) is completely unaware that many women cannot afford contraception coverage out of pocket.

Second, the Obama administration has explicitly put in place policies ensuring that religious congregations, dioceses, schools, hospitals, charities, universities, and health care facilities will not be required to provide contraception coverage  if they have moral objections to it. I don’t know which religious organizations Heller thinks are being “oppressed” here, but he must have a broader definition of a religious organization (and a more expansive definition of oppression) than I can imagine. Or, again, he could just be dealing in misinformation.

In the coming days I expect we’ll be hearing more arguments along these lines, but I hope other lawmakers who voted in favor of the Blunt Amendment will provide a more honest explanation for their support of this extreme legislation.  I’d love hear somebody explain why letting employers dictate which health care services their employees’ may receive is a morally defensible way to address religious liberty concerns.

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