February 10th, 2012
10:35 AM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN)–The battle over who should pay for contraceptives and how has been framed in the news media as Catholics versus the Obama White House.
When the administration announced religiously affiliated institutions would have a year to comply with a new policy that require them to pay for contraceptives through insurance plans, it was Catholic bishops who led the criticism, firing off angry letters to be read at Mass in parishes nationwide. That campaign appears to have worked, with the White House signaling it will announce a compromise on its rule on Friday.
But in pushing the White House to change the rule, Catholics were joined by a politically formidable religious group that's OK with contraception but increasingly sensitive about what they say is a government bent on secularizing the public square: evangelical Christians.
"I'm not a Catholic," California megachurch pastor Rick Warren wrote on his Twitter feed Tuesday, "but I stand in 100% solidarity with my brothers & sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure."
A survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Catholics were evenly divided over the issue of government mandated contraception insurance for Catholic institutions. The White House touted the survey to reporters to show there was support for the measure among Catholics.
The same survey showed that white evangelicals are the religious group who voice the greatest opposition to the new policy from the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We do see white evangelicals pretty much right in line with the bishops on this one, while Catholics are actually more divided," said Daniel Cox, the director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group.
"White evangelicals are strongly in support of having these religiously affiliated institutions being exempted," Cox said.
Most evangelical and conservative Christians from Protestant backgrounds do not oppose the use of contraceptives, as official Catholic teaching does. The issue for these groups is what they see as a threat to religious liberty.
Samuel "Dub" Oliver, the president of East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, Texas, said in an interview Thursday that he was willing and ready to go to jail rather than comply with the policy because he said it would violate his school's religious liberty. "In the long history of Baptist leaders, we feel strongly about religious liberty," he said. "Many have gone to jail and many have died defending religious liberty for all."
While his university's health center provides oral contraceptives, or the birth control pill, it does not provide emergency contraceptives. "We specifically exclude those, because according to our conscience, that's an abortifacient that we don't want to provide under our [insurance] plan," he said. Many abortion opponents have argued that emergency contraceptives like "the morning after pill" acts to be an abortifacient, a medicine that can induce abortions. Emergency contraceptives are a stronger dose of birth control and health providers make a distinction between them and the abortion pill RU-486.
"The deeper idea for us is the idea of religious liberty and government has crossed a boundary to require them to do something that violates their conscience," Oliver said.
Warren, who delivered the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, tweeted this week that he, too, would go to jail over the issue .
Warren has a large national following. The pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California is also one of the best-selling authors of his generation with his book "The Purpose Driven Life."
"I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do," Warren tweeted this week. "Would you? Acts 5:29."
Warren was referencing the New Testament's Books of Acts, in which Jesus' apostles had been jailed for preaching in the Jewish temple and were brought before the religious leaders of the day. The apostles responded to the charges, "We must obey God rather than men."
One of the first legal challenges to the new Obama policy came from Colorado Christian University, a nondenominational university near Denver. In December, it filed a lawsuit with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty challenging the HHS regulation as a violation of the school's First Amendment rights.
The Becket Fund, a conservative religious legal organization, represented another college and the Catholic television channel EWTN in separate lawsuits against the policy.
Shapri LoMaglio, who heads government relations for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents Colorado Christian and 114 other evangelical Christian schools in the United States, said the council's member schools actively lobbied members of Congress against the policy since its formal announcement last month.
"Our schools are very concerned. They see this as an infringement of religious liberties," LoMaglio said.
The Family Research Council, an evangelical group in Washington, also came out in full force against the policy. Calling the policy an "oppressive mandate" it pulled together members of Congress and those affected by the policy for a town hall-style webcast on Thursday evening.
The evangelical disdain for the policy may have a limited impact on the presidential election, said Cox, the pollster.
"This isn't a group likely to support Obama in the general election," he said. "The political implications are more for Catholics, in particular white Catholics. That is a group fairly evenly divided when it comes to this. When it comes to white evangelicals, three out of four are likely to vote for the eventual Republican nominee."
CNN's Brianna Keilar contributed to this report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.