On February 10, President Obama tried to extinguish a growing firestorm sparked by his decision to force religious institutions to provide their employees health insurance that covers the full cost of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.

He announced his solution: The religious institutions’ insurance companies, not the institutions themselves, will be required to provide the pills “free of charge.” In other words, according to the president, there is such a thing as a free lunch—or free birth control, anyway. The mainstream press credulously reported Obama’s announcement as an “accommodation” or “compromise.” The New York Times called it “President Obama’s compromise plan to require free insurance coverage of contraceptives for women.”

Obama’s announcement satisfied Planned Parenthood and a number of Catholic liberals who had been among the biggest backers of Obamacare. But it didn’t diminish at all the moral imposition on religious employers who want no part of giving contraceptives and abortifacients to anyone. Under threat of large fines, these institutions will still be forced by the federal government to provide their employees insurance that covers these benefits free. “Not only is this an outrageous violation of one denomination’s religious freedom, but it’s quite frightening to those of us of other religious denominations,” said Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University during testimony to Congress last week.

Many Democrats think Obama’s accounting gimmick has turned the issue into a wedge they can use against Republicans, whom they portray as opponents of “women’s health.” Some may well have seen the issue that way all along. White House adviser David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, backed the original rule requiring religious institutions unequivocally to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients. The mandate takes effect three months before the election (though religious institutions were to be given an extra year to comply in order to tamp down the negative news stories). Of course, the original plan backfired. Could the new plan backfire, too?

It just might. The coalition now opposed to the mandate mirrors the coalition that opposed Obamacare, and it may be even bigger. Scott Brown, the moderate Massachusetts Republican senator who is up for reelection this fall, went on the offensive against the mandate in a series of interviews last week. He framed the issue as an assault on religious freedom that was a result of the national takeover of the health care system.

“This latest mandate under government-controlled health care is one reason why I campaigned and voted against Obamacare in the first place,” Brown wrote in an op-ed for the Boston Herald. “It operates by broad dictation from Washington, showing no respect for the judgment, needs, or rights of individual Americans and the states. And it opens the door to endless abuses of power such as this latest mandate.”

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Brown’s fellow freshman Republican senator from the Northeast, is also an outspoken opponent. “This is not a women’s rights issue,” she said at a press conference in the Capitol. “This is a religious liberty issue, and it can apply to all faiths. And I’ve heard from my constituents, who are deeply, deeply concerned about this. We need to respect the rights of conscience for all religions.” The entire Republican party appears to be united behind some legislative proposal to reverse Obama’s mandate.

The Democrats who opposed Obama-care—and even some who supported it—still find the mandate unacceptable. “Despite news reports .  .  . nothing has really changed,” Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago’s suburbs, said during another press conference in the Capitol. “We have a vague statement about who’s going to pay for what, but it’s nothing but a shell game.” Lipinski voted in favor of Obama’s health care reform bill when it banned taxpayer funding of elective abortion but against it when the final bill included taxpayer funding of abortion.

Democratic senators Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have cosponsored bills to curb the administration’s mandate. Senator Joe Lieberman is “still reviewing” the issue, according to a spokesman. Even Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he was unsure if the administration had protected the religious liberty of self-insured hospitals, schools, and churches. The administration really can’t hide behind its claim that the insurer will pay for morally objectionable services when the insurer and the employer are the same entity.

Supporters of the mandate are fighting back, arguing that legislation to restore the conscience protections that existed before Obamacare will leave Americans vulnerable. “You know, a Christian Science owner of a running shoe store could decide no health insurance,” Durbin said on Tuesday. Of course, for all of American history prior to the passage of Obamacare, shoe salesmen—whatever their religion—were free to pay their employees with money rather than health care benefits without facing fines from the federal government, yet the republic managed to survive.

At the grassroots level, Catholics are rallying opposition at parishes throughout the country. The National Association of Evangelicals, a group known for its liberal-leaning positions on global warming and defense, has vowed to fight the mandate. Meanwhile, NARAL, the group formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League, has cut an ad thanking Obama, and other pro-abortion groups are mobilizing their forces as well.

It’s not at all clear who will win this fight. A CNN poll showed Americans oppose the administration’s policy 50 percent to 44 percent, but a CBS/New York Times poll found that 61 percent of Americans supported it.

A lot depends on whether opponents can press the argument against Obama’s mandate from all angles. Can they get the word out that it’s not merely a “contraception mandate” but an “abortion mandate,” too? Can they make the case that the issue is religious liberty—or liberty more broadly—and not access to contraception? That all remains to be seen. But there’s no reason to think the issue will go away before November. For opponents, the election is the only opportunity to reverse the mandate.

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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