A majority of Americans — including Catholics — believe that employers should be required to provide employee health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost, according to a new survey.
But the research by the Public Religion Polling Institute  shows that when it comes to providing religious exemptions from free contraceptive coverage – something the White House is sharply criticized for failing to do – the public is much more divided.
The Catholic bishops have slammed the Obama administration in recent weeks, urging priests to read letters from the pulpit  blasting a new Health & Human Services rule that will require some Catholic institutions, such as universities, to cover employees' contraceptive costs.
On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued "Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate."  Included on the list was, "Catholics of all political persuasions are unified in their opposition to the mandate."
The survey released today, however, paints a more nuanced picture.
In fact, according to the PRRI poll, Catholics are more likely than Americans in general (52 to 49 percent) to say that religiously affiliated employers should have to provide contraception coverage. Among Catholic voters, though, the number drops to 45 percent support, with 52 percent opposed.
Only about 4-in-10 (41 percent) white Catholics support the contraception mandate for all Catholic institutions, compared to 58 percent who oppose it.
The exemption debate has largely focused on Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies, and nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost.
Some 46 percent say they should not have to provide such coverage, which critics say violates religious freedom by forcing institutions to subsidize treatments that violate the tenets of their faith.
Parishes and other church organizations focused on preaching and teaching the faith are exempt from the mandate.
A majority of Catholics (58 percent) do support the contraception mandate generally. While Catholic Church teaching proscribes the use of artificial birth control to avoid conception, 98 percent of Catholics use contraception.
Young people and the religiously unaffiliated are much more likely to believe all institutions, religious or not, should provide free contraception coverage to their employees, while less than a third (31 percent) of white evangelicals support such a mandate.
The survey of 1,009 adults was conducted Feb. 1-5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. The sample included 219 Catholics and 168 Catholic voters. The margins of error for this sample are +/- 6.5 and 7.5 percentage points, respectively.
Many of Obama’s conservative opponents have viewed the president’s decision not to offer a broad religious exemption to mandated free health insurance coverage of contraception as chance to rally religious voters, and Catholics in particular, against Obama and for Republican candidates who would overturn the mandate.
“Given how closely divided Catholic voters are over the requirement that religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges provide employees with health care plans that cover contraception, it seems unlikely that this issue will galvanize Catholics nationally and seriously undermine Obama's electoral prospects with this important religious constituency,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director.
The PRRI poll offers fodder for both sides because each can argue that the issue can rally their base – churchgoing white Catholics and evangelicals for the Republicans, and less religiously observant believers and the unaffiliated, as well as women, for the Democrats.
Much may depend on how the debate is framed between now and the election: opponents of the administration’s mandate know that the public generally supports birth control coverage so they are seeking to underscore the religious freedom aspect of the issue, while supporters of the mandate want to keep the focus on birth control as a key aspect of women’s health care and a means to reducing abortions.
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. David's posts appear via RNS .