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LEO: HHS ‘accommodation’ nothing more than a gimmick

Obama administration flailing on religious liberty

- - Friday, February 8, 2013

The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate accommodation proposed last Friday does not relieve the burden that has been placed on religious hospitals, colleges and charities, or on individuals wishing to freely exercise their faith or assert their rights of conscience. There is no expansion of the religious exemption because Internal Revenue Service provisions relied upon by HHS to define religious entities do not apply to most religiously affiliated institutions. Moreover, the process by which an institution can receive an accommodation puts it right in the middle of having to arrange free contraceptive services for its employees, even though it is not paying for them itself. That is a distinction without a difference, and ostensibly an accounting gimmick, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted Thursday.

We are now entering at least Round Three in the administration's ongoing efforts respecting abortion and contraception services under Obamacare, and it is dividing Americans in a culture war that smacks more of politics than a well-intentioned crusade for women's health.

Despite the leadership, litigation and good-faith efforts of the Catholic Church to resolve this issue and protect religious freedom and rights of conscience for everyone, the Obama administration seems to believe that last November's election results give it a mandate to forge ahead without much of a concession. Indeed, supporters of the president -- many of whom spent the months leading up to the election denying the existence of a "Catholic Vote" -- afterward raised up his 2-point edge among Catholic voters like some holy relic. The reality is that the president's performance among Catholics was down significantly from his 2008 margin of 54-45 percent. Supporters were quick to seize on how he "won" this hitherto non-existent bloc of voters. For what purpose? The president's surrogates, in other words, were right before they were wrong.

As they pointed out months back, the universe of Catholic voters is so large and politically diverse that it is the opposite of a voting bloc. In fact, it normally tracks closely with the overall national elections results -- as it did this time. Talking about Catholics in toto as a targetable political demographic is akin to discussing the brunette vote or focusing on voters with glasses.

Within the larger universe of Catholics, however, there are subsets of voters of much greater political salience.

One such cohort is regular (at least weekly) Mass-attending Catholics. These are the folks in the pews who in 2012 were repeatedly reached on the issue of religious freedom through homilies, church bulletins, church rallies, bishops' letters and, when parking lot patrols were successfully evaded, through literature such as the Catholic Association's Religious Freedom Scorecard, comparing the records of President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. These are the folks campaign strategists have identified as the "holy grail" of voters in the past four presidential elections.

In 1999, Steven Wagner, president of QEV Analytics, conducted a landmark national survey of Catholic voters and identified two distinct political strains among regular Mass-attending Catholics: "Social Justice" Catholics -- whose politics generally encompass traditional liberal agenda concerns -- and a group Mr. Wagner dubbed "Social Renewal" Catholics. While the latter are generally anti-abortion, they are also concerned about broader cultural decline and the threat that it poses to individuals, families and communities. It was in this group that Mr. Wagner identified the core of the Catholic "swing vote."

So how did Mr. Obama fare with regular Mass-attending Catholics? He was clobbered.

Mr. Romney received a historic 57 percent compared to the president's 42 percent -- a 15-point gap that was up dramatically from the single point Sen. John McCain received over Mr. Obama in 2008.

The raw numbers tell an even bigger story. Mr. Obama lost 2 million regular Mass-attending Catholic voters from his '08 showing.

Democratic policy adviser William Galston confirmed shortly after the election that the Obama administration had deliberately chosen to "pick a fight" with the Catholic Church over the HHS mandate in order to boost turnout of unmarried women, 70.4 percent of whom voted for Mr. Obama in 2008. The result? Mr. Obama's support from unmarried women actually dipped to 67 percent. Here again, the raw numbers tell an important story. Mr. Obama received the same number of votes of unmarried women as in 2008 -- 19.1 million. The turnout "boost" was a bust. The math shows that the decision to "pick a fight" with Catholics was a miscalculation, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s early political objections to the ploy were well-founded.

In the end, however, those 2 million regular Mass-attending voters that left Mr. Obama did not end up in Mr. Romney's column. For whatever reason, he could not close the sale with them. Perhaps, though grasping the bishops' exhortations that conscience play an essential role in governing one's vote, too many faithful missed the implicit duty to actually get into the voting booth in the first place.

In any case, the numbers speak to where faithful, Mass-attending Catholics stand and how they feel about their religious liberty being compromised. The president or his agents are going to have to do better to accommodate this community of faithful Catholics or risk swinging them permanently into the column of voters alienated by the Democratic Party.

Leonard Leo, a director of the Catholic Association, was George W. Bush's Catholic strategist for the 2004 election.