Until now in this US presidential campaign, the cultural issues that were at the forefront of the 2004 campaign were considered irrelevant with everyone focused on the economy. Now that assumption may have to be revised.
A firestorm erupted when Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, explained that the preventive medicine envisaged by the compulsory healthcare insurance law also included anti-contraception measures - and employers would have to provide this to employees.
The only exemption would be for a religious institution that forbade contraception and whose employees all shared that belief. The institution, for example, a hospital or a university, would have to provide the measures if it employed people outside the faith, even if this was against its religious principles.
It was Stalin who reportedly asked facetiously and somewhat derogatively, "How many divisions does the Pope have." The Obama administration may be asking itself the very same question and the answer may be a high number. Catholics were an important part of the victorious 2008 Obama coalition and gave Obama 54 percent of their vote.
The announced policy produced a backlash in which priests sent letters to their congregations claiming that the law was unjust and unprecedented. Perhaps the administration had felt that the church had de facto conceded on the contraception issue and would not make an issue of it. Some of the scandals that have rocked the church may have also convinced the administration that it was confronting a wounded and hesitant opponent.
The administration soon realized that it had a tiger by the tail, as even liberal Catholics who in the previous election had publicly backed Obama, opposed the ruling as an infringement on freedom of religion.
The California Catholic Conference for example called on worshippers to voice their displeasure to the administration as:
"By its actions, the Administration declares that free contraception is more important than religious freedom -- a value that pre-dates the formation of the United States -- and is so important that is enshrined in our constitution as the First Amendment.
Please tell President Obama that this is unacceptable, unnecessary and inconsistent with his repeated pledge to respect religious freedom in the health care law and other aspects of governance."
In the Senate, Marco Rubio quickly introduced a bill to exempt religious institutions. The issue quickly moved to the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney accused the administration of leading "an assault on religion -- an assault on the conviction and religious beliefs on members of our society."
David Axelrod, a senior Obama strategist, tried to calm things down by promising to tweak the ruling so everybody could live with it and denied that the administration sought to "abridge anyone's religious freedom."
Republican candidate Rick Santorum pounced on the administration's spin. "The Catholic Church has been arguing and negotiating this for a year, and the administration is saying 'it's just a misunderstanding …It's just a bunch of bull. They are folks who are trying to use their power to force people to do things that they believe they should do and are right. They don't care about their religion."
The Jewish community was split along Orthodox-liberal lines: The OU said, “In declining to expand the religious exemption within the healthcare reform law, the Obama Administration has disappointingly failed to respect the needs of religious organizations such as hospitals, social welfare organizations and more.” Agudath Yisrael of America weighed in:
The Obama Administration had an opportunity to declare that there is a fundamental American value at stake here — religious freedom — and provide strong and unequivocal protections to religious employers. Instead, it took a step backwards by imposing religiously-objectionable mandates on countless religious entities, and by devising a cramped limitation on what “religious groups” are and what their public mission in society should be.