The uproar over President Obama's contraception-coverage mandate has become a tug of war over who will get to frame the fight: Republicans, who have called it a war on religious freedom, or Democrats, who insist that it's really about women's health.
Congressional Democrats hammered that message Thursday, inviting Georgetown law student and reproductive-rights activist Sandra Fluke to testify at a special hearing held by Democrats on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
"Thank you for coming here to share the testimony you were banned from giving last week," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, referring to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa's decision to reject Ms. Fluke as a witness last week in a hearing he said was about religious freedom.
The dispute has continued to simmer in the two weeks since Mr. Obama announced he would exempt not just churches, but also religiously affiliated organizations, from the new rule requiring them to pay directly for insurance plans that offer contraception coverage.
But some Republicans, Catholic bishops and other religious leaders remain deeply skeptical.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has led the opposition, saying that Catholic organizations who agree with the church's historical opposition to artificial contraception shouldn't have to provide it to their employees.
At Thursday's hearing, Ms. Fluke said such restrictions mean women who work or study at such organizations have to pay for contraception on top of paying their premiums. Ms. Fluke is covered under a student plan sponsored by Georgetown, a traditionally Catholic school that doesn't cover contraception unless a student can demonstrate they need it for medical reasons.
She said the policy has driven some of her friends to stop using contraception altogether because it can cost as much as $3,000 over three years of school. She testified about a friend who had to have surgery to remove a cyst on her ovary because she had stopped taking birth control to treat it.
"Our struggle is not a war against the church. It is a struggle to get the health care we need," she said.
Under the compromise, Georgetown University would be exempted from covering contraception for employees, although female employees could seek it directly from the insurer. But it's still unclear whether the exemption would apply to student plans, since the administration has yet to release a final rule.
American voters are as divided as lawmakers over the mandate.
A Quinnipiac University survey conducted February 14-20 found that 48 percent of Americans oppose the mandate, while 47 percent favor it. The poll showed that 72 percent of Republicans oppose it, and 69 percent of Democrats support it.
But when it comes to how Mr. Obama has handled the issue, about half of all Americans aren't impressed — 49 percent disapprove, 37 percent approve — according to a Feb. 18-21 poll conducted by Purple Strategies of Alexandria.
Republican presidential candidates, sensing an opening, have pounced on the issue, calling the president's mandate a "war on religion."
"I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance than we've seen under Barack Obama," Mr. Romney said during Wednesday night's candidates' debate on CNN, "most recently, of course, requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees and its various enterprises health care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable."
Protesters have also taken their fight to the courtroom. On Thursday, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and attorneys general from Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, along with a number of Catholic groups filed a federal lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against the mandate.
• Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.
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