WASHINGTON — Religious leaders of different faiths stoked the national debate over contraception Thursday, converging on Capitol Hill and charging the Obama administration with attempting to violate their religious freedoms.
Leaders from the Catholic, Jewish, Baptist and Lutheran faiths joined in opposition to a proposed federal mandate that would require church-affiliated employers to cover birth control in their health plans.
The leaders took part in a highly politicized oversight hearing led by one of President Barack Obama's chief critics, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. But for those leaders, the issue was deeply serious and personal, touching on one of the basic tenets of the nation's democracy and raising questions about government's place in the faith community.
"I don't think there should be any compromise when it comes to our rights to religious freedom," said William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C. "I came here to ask for your help. This is an issue worth dying for."
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Thierfelder said it is the belief at his Roman Catholic liberal arts college, and that of many religious organizations, that contraception, sterilization and abortion are against God's law. He said they believe it's a sin for the college to facilitate access to these services.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule Jan. 20 that required all women to be able to receive access to free preventative care services, including contraceptives.
The proposal includes a religious exemption for churches and other groups whose main purpose is spreading religious beliefs. But the administration argues that the separation of church and state doesn't allow religious groups operating in the public marketplace to discriminate against employees.
On Friday, Obama sought to mitigate the controversy by proposing that insurance companies would pay the costs of birth control instead of the religious employers.
Americans are narrowly divided over the proposed federal rule, according to a Pew Research Center study released Wednesday. Some 48 percent support the exemption, and 44 percent say religiously affiliated institutions should be required to cover contraceptives like other employers.
Thierfelder joined 10 other religious leaders and experts, including Roman Catholic Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University in New York City, at a House oversight committee hearing titled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?"
The first panel of five religious leaders and experts included no women, raising heated objections from the Democratic members of the committee. (Two women testified against the proposal in a second panel.)
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called the hearing "a sham" and posted photos on Twitter of the first, all-male panel. He questioned why the religious leaders would allow themselves to be part of an exercise he said was intended to embarrass the president in an election year.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., characterized the hearing as a broad attack on contraceptive use by women across the country.
"I look at this panel and I don't one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning," she said. "Where are the women?"
But Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said the hearing was not a question about access to contraception, but about religious freedom.
"I don't think there is any movement afoot to ban contraceptives. That's not what this is about," said McHenry, who graduated from Belmont Abbey College. "It's about forcing religious institutions with deeply held moral convictions to do something that is counter to their faith."
The leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Obama's contraception compromise in a letter to its membership. But not all Catholic organizations are against the proposal.
"We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished," Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, said in a statement.
Under the proposal, employers who fail to provide health insurance coverage under the federal law could be fined $2,000 per employee per year. Thierfelder said Belmont Abbey College would have to pay $300,000 a year in fines.
The school sued the Obama administration late last year to stop the government order. This is not the college's first run-in with the Obama administration. In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that Belmont Abbey was violating federal law by refusing to include prescription contraceptives in its health care plan.
"We're not trying to enforce our beliefs on anybody," Thierfelder said. "However, our beliefs are very important to us. What we're asking is that we're not coerced into violating our beliefs."
There is no sign the controversy will end anytime soon.
Republicans on the presidential campaign trail have seized on the issue. A key backer of Republican former Sen. Rick Santorum caused a stir Thursday by suggesting a novel birth control method for women.
"Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives," Foster Friess, a Wyoming multimillionaire who is bankrolling a super political action committee for Santorum, told an astonished Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. "The gals put it between their legs and it wasn't that costly."
The response — which Friess delivered with a smile — came as Mitchell asked him whether he agreed with Santorum's stance on social issues, including women in combat and contraceptives.
(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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