Do Polls Show American Public Favoring Bishops’ Position on Contraceptive Coverage?

A new New York Times/CBS News poll asked respondents whether “all employers” should have to cover birth control, and whether they should be permitted to opt out for “moral or religious objections.” Fifty-one percent of respondents said that there should be an opt-out for objecting employers, while only 40% did not. If the employer has a “religious affiliation,” those number supporting an “opt-out” jumps to 57%. 

The framing of the question is new.

A February poll by the NYT/CBS asked the question this way: “Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?” (emphasis added). Sixty-six percent said they supported the requirement, with 26% opposed.

The follow-up question was: “And what about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university – do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that their health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees?” There, 61% said they supported the requirement, with 31% opposed.  

The Bishops’ original objection to the requirement was that religious institutions should not have to comply with it — in other words, that they should not be forced to provide insurance to their employees that covers contraception free of co-pays. Only after President Obama made the accommodation on February 10 that placed the onus of coverage on insurance carriers rather employers did this question of whether an employer could have a “religious or moral” opt-out even come to the fore. As part of their shifting arguments, the Bishops raised the “Taco Bell” opt-out. Through this, the Bishops began arguing that any employer (i.e., a Taco Bell franchise) should be permitted to raise a religious objection and opt out of the requirement. Senate Republicans attempted to codify that (and more) in the Blunt Amendment, which failed earlier this month by three votes.

It appears from the new NYT/CBS poll, though, that if the question is framed about employers’ “moral or religious objections,” the Bishops’ strategy might have been persuasive. But if the question is asked about insurance carriers, rather than employers, the response is different.

CBS explained the difference between the polls this way: 

In a CBS News/New York Times survey conducted last month, 61 percent of Americans said they supported federally-mandated contraception coverage for religiously-affiliated employers, while 31 percent said they opposed such coverage. In that poll, respondents were not questioned about whether or not employers should be able to opt out based on moral or religious objections.

But an exemption was essentially what the question about religiously affiliated employers was: do you support or oppose requiring religiously-affilated employers to comply with the same rule as non-religious employers. There must be something appealing about the “opt-out” language, even for employers whose institutions aren’t explicitly religious (i.e., the Taco Bell franchisees).

Still, though, I’d want to see more data before concluding that a majority of Americans support the failed Blunt Amendment or its House counterpart, the Fortenberry bill, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports. If its overbreadth was explained to respondents—such as how it would permit any employer to raise religious or moral objections to any sort of coverage (think drug treatment or HIV drugs)—perhaps respondents would see things differently.

The March poll also asked whether the issue is more about “religious freedoms” or “women’s health and rights.” Thirty seven percent said “religious freedoms,” while 51%, a majority, said “women’s health and rights.” That’s a bright spot suggesting that perhaps describing the issue as an “opt-out” for “moral or religious objections” is one that presents the Bishops’ position as innocuous, without describing its impact on women’s access to the coverage, or on the First Amendment issues implicated here

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting this week in Washington to map its next steps. Bishop William Lori, chair of its Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, told the Religion News Service that they hope to “restart” talks with the Obama administration:

Lori said the bishops “do not have a monopoly on the church” but are nonetheless “responsible for a large part of how this works and for the Catholicity of all the institutions. So there ought to be an attempt to have an inclusive conversation with the Catholic Church, and not a segmented one. And I think that is in part why we are in a fairly unhappy spot right now.”

Lori and some 40 other leading bishops will meet in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday for discussions expected to focus on relations with the White House and, in particular, the contraception mandate.

Lori said that the bishops “are not looking for a fight with the administration.” The bishops, he said, “are painfully aware that it is awfully difficult, in an election year and in the culture we have now, to have that conversation” about birth control.

Not looking for a fight? Is that why USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s recent letter to his fellow Bishops said “religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it?” Why he pledged “we will ardently continue to seek a rescinding of the suffocating mandates that require us to violate our moral convictions?” Why he complained that “Some, like America magazine, want us to cave-in and stop fighting?”