However, the contraceptive mandate has infuriated many Catholics regardless of political ideology because it could potentially damage what they consider the pride of their church: the multibillion-dollar Catholic-run network of hospitals, schools, colleges, homeless shelters and food pantries that mostly employ and serve members of other faiths. The Health and Human Services regulation includes an exemption only for religious groups who primarily serve and employ members of their own faith. Noncompliance is punishable by fines that could bring financial ruin. The option of self-insurance, a common religious exemption in state mandates for birth control coverage, is not available under the federal health care law.
"I don't think this is the president's best judgment," said Douglas Kmiec, a prominent conservative legal scholar and Catholic who has been excoriated by bishops and conservative activists for backing Obama, starting four years ago. "I've got a great deal of concern that he has caused for himself an enormous problem with my fellow Catholics that he didn't need and that will indeed place his re-election in jeopardy."
The mandate has been an embarrassment for Kmiec and other moderate Catholics. While they have defended the president, some bishops and activists have labeled Democrats the "party of death." Kmiec was denied Holy Communion by one priest and excoriated by another from the pulpit. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents some 600 hospitals, faced down American bishops by providing key support for Obama's health care overhaul.
Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent Catholic and former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, resigned as a trustee at the conservative Catholic Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2008 so the school would not be targeted by critics who accused him of abandoning the church by backing Obama.
Cafardi said this week he was disappointed by the tight religious exemption in the mandate and hoped some compromise can be reached during the one-year grace period the administration has offered religious groups. "But what is so wrong is characterizing this as Obama's war on the Catholic church," Cafardi said. "Politicians will use the church for their purposes any time they can. I think the church needs to be careful to not let itself become a political tool of the left or the right."
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Rachel Zoll covers religion for The Associated Press.
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