Three years ago, President Obama gave the University of Notre Dame’s commencement address, pleading for common ground with Catholics on thorny issues and vowing to seek a “sensible conscience clause” for doctors and nurses who oppose abortion out of religious objections.
Since then, however, relations have fizzled, to the point that Notre Dame and dozens of other Catholic institutions sued the Obama administration last week arguing that its new health-care rules infringe on religious liberty by forcing schools and charities to pay for contraception, which the church teaches is immoral.
“We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others. We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the university when those values conflict with our religious teachings,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said in a letter explaining the school’s lawsuit. “We have engaged in conversations to find a resolution that respects the consciences of all, and we will continue to do so.”
Add to that Mr. Obama’s recent embrace of gay marriage, and the dividing line between his stances and Catholic doctrines is clear.
Still to be seen, though, is what Catholic voters will do at the polls — whether these battles will sour any who may otherwise have been inclined to support Mr. Obama for re-election.
Indeed, Catholics as a whole are a diverse group when it comes to voting patterns, with 48 percent supporting Mr. Obama compared with 40 percent who are planning to vote for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, according to a Washington Times poll conducted earlier this month.
In a very close race, the president cannot afford to lose his advantage among the Catholic voting demographic, especially in key swing states with large Catholic populations, such as Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Indiana. The latter is home to Notre Dame.
“These lawsuits will highlight the issue for voters, and it may lead voters who are ambivalent to think more deeply about the issue,” said John Green, a professor of politics at the University of Akron who specializes in religious issues. “There is a capacity that this could influence the election, especially on the margins in battleground states like Missouri and Ohio.”
A national survey conducted in February by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & the Public found that 55 percent of Catholics favor an exemption from the contraception mandate for religiously affiliated institutions, compared with 39 percent of Catholics who think the requirement should apply to all employers and insurers.
Opinion also varies considerably by frequency of church attendance. Among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, 63 percent support an exemption, while 25 percent say religiously affiliated institutions should be forced to cover contraceptives.
The distinction is important, because people who attend church regularly are more likely to vote, especially in tight contests.
Of course, any disenchantment among Catholic voters could be offset by a surge in enthusiasm for Mr. Obama from his base, especially female voters who would benefit from greater access to free contraception.
The net impact on voters and the election is difficult to predict, Mr. Green said, especially considering the pending Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the health care law, which could gut the president’s signature legislative accomplishment or strike it down entirely, thus nullifying key mandates before the election.
“If the high court were to invalidate the whole law, then this debate goes away,” Mr. Green said. “But if it supports the law, then this debate takes on new meaning.”
During his speech at Notre Dame in 2009, Mr. Obama pledged to work toward common ground with those who oppose his policies on abortion and contraception.View Entire Story
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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