Conflict Over Obama’s Contraception Rule Intensifies

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The Administration’s decision to require Catholic charities and universities to provide free birth control through employee health coverage is several weeks old, but the maelstrom of dissent it’s created is widening. Republicans, who charge that the measure violates such organizations’ religious freedoms, have allied with Catholic groups in opposition, and in recent days a handful of high-profile Democrats have joined their ranks in calling on the Administration to broaden exemptions from the rule.

On Wednesday, Tim Kaine, the former Obama-picked Democratic National Committee chairman who is now running for Senate in Virginia, told a radio interviewer he had “grave concerns.”  “I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act insurance policy,” he said, “but I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious- employer exemption.” Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and Connecticut Representative John Larson, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, expressed similar criticisms. All three are Catholic. (As Amy Sullivan writes at The Atlantic, many of the people lobbying the White House for a broader exemption are longstanding allies.)

(MOREObama Administration’s Contraception Ruling Fits with Re-Election Needs)

Conservative backlash has been much fiercer. Speaker John Boehner took to the House floor on Wednesday to condemn the ruling and pledged to draft legislation to block it. “If the President does not reverse the attack on religious freedom,” he said, “then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.

In the new issue of TIME, available online to subscribers, National Review editor Rich Lowry crystallizes this case, increasingly prevalent on the right, that Obama’s contraception stance represents an effort to curtail religious freedoms. The President, Lowry writes, will face both political and legal backlash:

In Obama’s decision (and yes, he did okay it), we see again an encroachment of secular government, with its web of rules and regulations, on a free, civil society. It is an expression of the unyielding “tutelary power” of the administrative state foretold by Alexis de Tocqueville. Such a state seeks what it imagines to be our happiness, he wrote, “but it wishes to be the only agent and sole arbiter of that happiness.”

In America, though, what the state wishes it doesn’t always get. Obama will retreat or lose in the courts.

The political toxicity of the rule is not as immediately apparent outside of Washington. A poll released earlier this week found a majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics, support a requirement for employers to provide employees with coverage that includes free contraception. And, as Democrats are quick to point out, many Americans are already subject to one. In total, 28 states have rules mandating insurance coverage of birth control. Twenty of those states, however have an exemption for religious employers, many of which include exemptions for Catholic universities and charities. Just four have narrow exemptions that, like Obama’s new rule, do not.

Even as the Administration looks to those 28 states for ways to allay the concerns of Catholic groups, the chances that it will willingly accede on the larger issue may have been overstated this week after David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the President’s re-election campaign, seemed to hint at a larger reversal on Tuesday.  “We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms,” he told MSNBC, “so we’re going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventative care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday indicated that while the Administration would consider tweaks to the exemption, the fundamental scope of the rule would remain unchanged. “We want to work with all these organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible,” he told reporters at a press briefing. “But let’s be clear: We are committed, the President is committed, to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra costs, no matter where they work.”

MORE: Obama’s Fairness Doctrine

Read Rich Lowry’s full column in the new issue of TIME, available online to subscribers Thursday and on newsstands Friday.