Birth Control Mandate Begins; Poll Shows Catholics Mostly Agree With Bishops' Concerns

The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that employer sponsored health coverage include birth control begins Wednesday. Pew Research Center released a poll the same day showing that most Catholics who are aware of the controversy over the mandate share their bishops' concerns that it violates religious freedom.

The June 28 to July 9 poll first asked respondents if they had "heard about bishops' protests against policies they say restrict religious liberty." Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Catholics say they have heard a lot (22 percent) or a little (42 percent) about the controversy. Among those who had heard, 56 percent said they agree with the bishops' concerns, 36 percent disagreed.

The question also turned out to be a good predictor of vote choice in the presidential race. Sixty percent of Catholic voters who had heard about the controversy and agreed with the bishops said they are supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has been critical of the HHS mandate. Of those who disagreed with the bishops, 78 percent said they support President Barack Obama.

The HHS mandate requires employers to provide contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs for no co-pay in their employees' health insurance. There is a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrowly written that most religious organizations would not qualify. The religious organization must, for instance, primarily hire and serve co-religionists to receive the exemption. Catholic hospitals, schools and social service agencies are, therefore, required to abide by the mandate, even though their religious teachings forbid the use of these services.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed over the mandate. In May, 43 Catholic agencies filed suit, and last week a federal judge stopped the mandate from going into effect for a private company owned by a Catholic family.

U.S. Catholics also had an event this summer, "Fortnight for Freedom," that helped call attention to religious freedom issues, including the HHS mandate.

Catholics are not the only ones opposing the mandate. Evangelical organizations have also spoken out against the mandate and have sued the federal government.

Last month, for instance, Wheaton College joined Catholic University in a suit. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Wheaton, asked a federal court Wednesday for a preliminary injunction to prevent the mandate from going into effect for Wheaton until its case is settled.

While the mandate technically goes into effect today, changes in insurance coverage will vary from employer to employer, depending on when the insurance coverage is renewed.

The poll of 2,973 adults, including 619 Catholics, has a plus or minus 4.6 percentage point margin of error for Catholics and plus or minus 5.3 percentage point margin of error for Catholic voters.

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