- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2012

Disdain for President Obama’s controversial new mandate that religious institutions pay for their workers’ birth control emerged as a unifying rally cry at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Thursday, suggesting Republicans will hit the president hard on the issue during this year’s presidential campaign.

“This administration is assaulting the Catholic Church and people of faith across our nation by forcing their pro-abortion agenda on religious hospitals, on charities and on employees,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination last month, told a CPAC audience.

“The Obama administration’s war on faith must be defeated. We must win this war.”

Attacks on the mandate from speakers drew among the most enthusiastic responses during day one of the three-day event at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel — one the premier annual gatherings of conservatives in the country.

A standing ovation broke out when freshman Sen. Marco Rubio characterizing the mandate as unconstitutional and un-American.

“This isn’t even a social issue — this is a constitutional issue,” the Florida Republican said. “I know what the U.S. Constitution says about it, and what it says is the federal government does not have the power to force religious organizations to pay for things that that organization thinks is wrong.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the new mandate goes beyond a “violation of conscience.” The new rules, he said, will cost religious institutions like University of Notre Dame $10 million annually to abide by. Catholic Charities, he said, would have to pay 10 times that amount.

Mr. Obama is “a president who claims to value diversity [but] is telling the men and women who run religious schools and hospitals and charities in this country that they now face a choice that no one in the United States should ever have to make: Violate your conscience, pay a penalty, or close your doors,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Mr. McConnell said he and other opponents of the mandate “will fight this attack on the fundamental right to religious freedom until the courts overturn it or till we have a president who will reverse it.”

The administration’s mandate calls for contraceptives to be included in the standard health insurance coverage package. Religions per se are exempt, but their affiliated institutions such as colleges and hospitals are not.

The Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception is wrong and objects to being forced to provide insurance that pays for it, as cooperation with evil. U.S. Catholic bishops have strongly condemned the ruling as an assault of religious freedom and a violation of the separation of church and state.

On Thursday, Eternal Word Television Network became the latest Catholic organizations to file a lawsuit seeking to halt the mandate and to have the court declare the federal rule unconstitutional.

Catholics themselves, however, have told pollsters they are split on the issue.

The new federal rules gave a one-year grace period to religiously affiliated groups to comply, and White House advisers said they will use that time to try to find an accommodation though they will insist that women receive the coverage somehow.

But the Obama administration is facing continuing criticism from Capitol Hill, from Republican presidential candidates and even from some liberal Catholic Democrats as it seeks a compromise.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans tried to push the issue to the chamber floor, attempting to offer an amendment to the pending transportation bill that would have overturned the new rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, blocked the move.

But the issue is likely to come up again, and even some Senate Democrats — particularly those up for election this year — say the policy should be revoked.

In the GOP-controlled House, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said he and fellow Republicans are already working on legislation to undo the ruling.

“We’re going to handle this openly and deliberately so that every lawmaker can have their say and the voice of the people can be heard,” said Mr. Boehner at the CPAC gathering. “One thing’s for certain. This attack on religious freedom cannot and will not stand.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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