In the first, fevered days of the controversy over insurance coverage of drugs that prevent pregnancy and induce abortions, early polling results made their way into conventional wisdom: The White House and supporters of its mandate cited survey results that found a majority of Americans on their side of the issue. Some pollsters found that even a majority of Roman Catholics said they favored a government requirement that religiously affiliated schools, hospitals and social service agencies provide the coverage.
That narrative — Even Catholics support this! — had the effect of isolating Catholic bishops and other opponents of the requirement. Their objection that the mandate violated the Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty looked to be outside the nation's mainstream of thought.
But new evidence suggests that, as Americans spend more time thinking through this polarizing issue, their attitudes may be shifting away from the White House's position, and toward protection of religious freedom. A nationwide survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life found that six in 10 Americans have heard about the dispute. Of those, a plurality of 48 percent now favors an exemption for religiously affiliated institutions; 44 percent say those institutions should have to provide the coverage.
Among Catholics, 55 percent now favor an exemption, while 39 percent do not. Drill down more layers and you find 63 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly favoring an exemption, with 25 percent opposed. Of those who identify themselves as Catholic and visit church less frequently, 48 percent support an exemption; 49 percent disagree.
We argued in this space Sunday that public opinion shouldn't dictate government policy in matters of conscience. To do so, we said, would force opponents of capital punishment to surrender their objections because of the most recent finding from Gallup — in line with decades of its research — that Americans now favor the death penalty by a margin of 61 percent to 35 percent.
But the state of public opinion, we also said, is good to know. That's especially true if opinion is on the move. One possibility is that, early on, many Americans viewed this issue as primarily about contraception — but the ensuing debate has focused them on the notion of the federal government telling the University of Notre Dame or Catholic Charities that, despite church beliefs, it must provide these drugs to its employees.
President Barack Obama sought to amend that impact Friday. He said that while "religious organizations" that primarily serve their own members would be exempt, "religious institutions" that serve students or clients of other faiths wouldn't have to "directly" provide these services. Instead, employees would obtain contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, at no cost, from the religious institutions' insurers. Opponents of the president's revised mandate suspect that it's a shell game; they fear that their premium dollars essentially would be laundered through their insurers to provide the very coverage the institutions oppose.
Though the news may startle the White House, the president's Friday revision didn't convert opponents of the mandate into supporters. Pew says its pollsters interviewed 1,501 respondents from last Wednesday through Sunday, and: "The survey shows little difference in opinions among people interviewed before the administration's proposed modification (Friday) and those interviewed afterward."
Findings on other subgroups:
• Republicans favor an exemption for religious institutions, 73 percent to 19 percent. Democrats oppose an exemption, 64 to 29. Independents are split: 46 percent favor an exemption, 48 percent oppose.
• Men favor an exemption by a margin of 54-40; women oppose, 48-42.
• And you can make a case that Protestants are more protective of religious liberty than are rank-and-file Catholics. White mainline Protestants are evenly divided, with 44 percent favoring an exemption and 46 percent opposed. But among white evangelical Protestants, an overwhelming 68 percent support the Catholic bishops' call for an exemption, while 22 percent are opposed. Lump them together and you find 55 percent of white Protestants favoring an exemption, with 39 percent opposed.(Pew said its sample size of African-Americans who had heard about the issue was insufficient to draw meaningful results.)
So this fierce national debate isn't over. And we're all reminded anew that any survey is a snapshot in time. That's as true for this one as it is for the early polling that found Americans favoring the president's mandate. What follow-up surveys on this dispute will find a month or six months from now is anybody's guess.
But as Congress weighs possible legislation to exempt religious institutions from the administration's mandate, two observations emerge:
•The bishops aren't alone.
•Given time to reflect, many Americans want government policy to protect religious liberty — the first freedom guaranteed by our Constitution's First Amendment.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun