The most recent showdown between Roman Catholic Church leaders and the Obama administration over contraceptive services threatens to alienate the president's liberal religious supporters at a time when discontent with Washington is surging.
In letters read to parishioners Sunday, Catholic Church leaders across the country openly denounced the administration's recent decision mandating faith-based hospitals, charities and schools to provide birth control and reproductive services in health insurance plans.
The Catholic Church had lobbied against the new requirement, which will go into effect January 2013.
The wording in the letters, penned by individual clergy, varied widely but the theme was distinctly anti-Washington. Bishop Alexander K. Sample of Marquette, Mich., for example, accused the administration of casting aside the First Amendment, "denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty" and treating people of faith as second-class citizens. Others threatened to not comply with the new rule, which provides exemption to churches and "religious employers."
The mandate is particularly worrisome to supporters of President Obama, who had coalesced behind him despite his liberal views on abortion and reproductive rights.
"This has hurt the case that some Catholics have made that voting for Obama in some ways is a vote for Catholic social teaching," said Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religion and comparative studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reportedly based its decision on an Institute of Medicine study, which concluded that birth control is medically necessary to "ensure women's health and well being." The independent, nonprofit organization recommended in a July report that contraception, sterilization and reproductive services, including the controversial "morning-after" pill, should be available to all women under health insurance plans, echoing similar recommendations by other medical organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association.
Among Catholics, birth control is relatively popular and most are against Church leaders' intervening in that decision. Ninety-five percent of Catholic women used contraceptives, per a report by the Catholic University of America. Eighty-five percent of all Catholics support expanding access to birth control for women who cannot afford it, higher than the 82 percent of the general population who favors this, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Rank-and-file Catholics also have some reservation about how prominently they want the bishops to be involved in politics," said Robert P. Jones, chief executive and founder of the institute, which found that more than half of Catholics are against their religious leaders' pressuring politicians. "There's some possibility that some Catholics could perceive this as overreaching."
At the same time, some Catholics also feel the same way about the federal government and that it is stepping on religious liberties.
"For a majority of Catholics who don't necessarily follow Church teaching in this area, its significance is more symbolic in the sense that the broader issue is not just, say, contraception or providing health case for contraception, but creating a space within civil society for the expression of religion conscience," professor Schmalz said.
Religious groups, particularly Catholics, have had a mixed relationship with the president.
Obama, who had Joe Biden, a Catholic, as his running mate, won a majority of the Catholic vote in 2008, thanks to support from Hispanics. Seventy-one percent of Catholics of color voted for the senator from Illinois, according to an analysis of exit poll data by Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.
But he lost among white Catholics with only 47 percent support, becoming the first candidate since 1976 to lose white Catholics but win the presidency.
Democrats courted the religious bloc, including Catholics, heavily in 2008. Candidate Obama spoke openly and candidly about his faith, often linking to his views on issues such as executive pay. But even then, religious groups were wary of Obama because of his abortion-rights stance.
The most recent showdown isn't the first for this administration. The administration took much heat in December for rejecting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' request for a grant to help victims of sex trafficking, because it doesn't provide full gynecological services such as family planning, contraception and abortion. The conference, which got the second-highest rating from an independent review panel, received the same five-year grant in 2006.
It's too soon to tell how the recent kerfuffles will come to play in November but, religious experts say, it doesn't bode well for Obama. Even if he keeps his liberal base, he will have a hard time reaching out to the group at large.
"I don't think Catholic liberals are en masse going to leave Obama but they are disappointed," Schmalz said. "High-profile Catholics who have supported Obama are put in a more difficult position because of this."