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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Last month, we covered the testimony of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law student who testified in favor of the HHS regulation requiring all insurance plans to include birth control and other preventive services without co-pay. In particular, she highlighted the consequences of letting employers deny women these services, relaying the story of a friend who lost her ovary after she could no longer afford to pay out of pocket for contraceptive pills to treat her ovarian cysts.
Since Fluke’s testimony and the subsequent backlash from the far Right, the media has been saturated with coverage of the debate between religious liberty and reproductive freedom. However, as Nicole Neroulias’ recent Huffington Post piece rightly points out, framing the story in these terms misses this part of Fluke’s actual testimony.
“[A]s Fluke tried to explain in her opening statement, both frames miss the big picture: Women take the pill to address myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne, et al. This is the angle I’ve been waiting in vain for religious and mainstream journalists to acknowledge and investigate.
And logically, even when clergy approve of contraceptives for unrelated medical reasons, how would they have their institutions apply these directives? Should women who work at Catholic hospitals and schools get a doctor’s note for their bosses before requesting insurance reimbursement for the birth control pill? Would ovarian cysts and infertility make the cut, but acne and bad cramps be more along the lines of God’s will?”
This logistical problem is currently playing out in Arizona, where proposed Blunt Amendment-style legislation that would allow employers with moral objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage includes an exemption for employees who need it for health reasons, but only if they get permission from their employer.
I presume this measure is meant to prevent employees from lying about health problems to exploit this as a “loophole” to gain coverage for contraception. The law even makes it easier for employers to fire women for doing so.
But what about the 44% of women who use contraception for both health and birth control reasons? Do they have to convince their boss they’ve renounced the latter? Will people’s job security hinge on their bosses’ interpretations of their sincerity?
Further, does this principle apply to other drugs that can be used in multiple ways as well? Do single men with Viagra prescriptions need to prove they suffer from pulmonary arterial hypertension? Do employees need to convince their boss they aren’t abusing their painkiller prescriptions for recreational purposes? Is it practical to try to enforce legal lines that are based on the intention a person has when he or she uses a drug?
Turning bosses into moral and medical authorities over their employees seems to go far beyond bill proponents’ ostensible goal of limiting an employer’s involvement in practices they disagree with and clearly into the realm of directly controlling the behavior of their workers.
Tara Culp-Ressler contributed to this post.
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A select group of Catholic bishops meeting in Washington this week may be ready to consider a wiser approach to framing religious liberty arguments. Stephanie Simon of Reuters has the story.
Facing small but clear signs of discontent within their own ranks, U.S. Catholic bishops may be poised to rethink their aggressive tactics for fighting a federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraception, according to sources close to influential bishops. There are no indications that the bishops will drop their fight against the federal mandate. But dozens of bishops, meeting this week in Washington, are likely to discuss concerns that their battle against the Obama administration over birth control risks being viewed by the public as narrow and partisan and thus diminishes the church’s moral authority, the sources said.
One sign of a coming recalibration: A sweeping statement on religious liberty, now circulating in draft form, that aims to broaden the bishops’ focus far beyond the contraception mandate.
The draft statement, slated to be released soon to a burst of publicity, condemns an array of local, state and federal policies as violations of religious freedom, said Martin Nussbaum, a private attorney who has consulted with the bishops. The draft cites, for instance, a Republican-backed law in Alabama that makes it a crime to harbor, transport or rent property to illegal immigrants. The bishops have joined liberals in opposing that law, arguing that would make it a crime to minister to people in need.
This is hopeful news. Catholic bishops find themselves increasingly isolated from leaders of Catholic hospitals and social service agencies that provide direct care. These Catholic institutions – including the influential Catholic Health Association – have signaled the administration’s religious accommodation on the contraception coverage mandate provides a workable solution.
Let’s hope the voices of moderate bishops like Bishop Blase Cupich are not drowned out by a vocal minority who often seem to prefer a fight with this administration. When bishops move the goal posts, find themselves aligned with GOP presidential candidates looking to score political points and fail to distinguish between Catholic moral principles and the prudent application of those principles to policy questions in a diverse society, their cause is deeply weakened.
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At the Huffington Post, Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good weighs in on the “war on religion” rhetoric emanating from religious opponents of the HHS contraception regulation:
The fierce backlash from some evangelical Christian leaders to President Obama’s sensible decision to cover contraception services under the health care reform law brings to mind Groucho Marx’s definition of politics: “The art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.”
Christian mega-pastor Rick Warren is willing to engage in civil disobedience. The National Association of Evangelicals is reportedly considering asking pastors of every evangelical denomination to read an open letter to their congregations calling the requirement to make birth control for women available without co-pays an attack on religious liberty — despite an exemption for religious institutions affiliated with faiths that forbid contraception. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, insists there is “no compromise.”
As an evangelical leader, I’ve been involved in defending religious freedom for three decades. Compromise is not always a moral failure in a pluralistic society. In an election year, we must also distinguish between real attacks on faith and cheap demagoguery to score political points. GOP presidential candidates who have been assailing President Obama’s supposed “war on religion” should be ashamed of themselves. This irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric makes a mockery of the victims of real wars and unconscionable religious persecution around the world.
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E.J. Dionne weighs in on the strategic and moral choice facing the American Catholic bishops as they meet this week:
The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will make an important decision this week: Do they want to defend the church’s legitimate interest in religious autonomy, or do they want to wage an election-year war against President Obama?
And do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer?
These are the issues confronting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative committee when it begins a two-day meeting on Tuesday. The bishops should ponder how they transformed a moment of exceptional Catholic unity into an occasion for recrimination and anger.
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