WASHINGTON - A political firestorm is raging in the United States over a proposal by President Barack Obama to offer birth control to women and faith-based groups, sparking accusations against the Democratic leader of assaulting religion.
"This attack ... on religious freedom in our country cannot stand and will not stand," House of Representative Speaker John Boehner said in a speech on the chamber floor on Wednesday, February 8, Reuters reported.
Obama has proposed that health insurance covers basic birth control services for women, even at Catholic charities, hospitals and universities.
But the proposal came under fire from Catholic bishops, who argue that the policy infringes on religious liberty because the church does not condone the use of birth control pills or other contraceptives.
During the weekend, clergy from the Catholic Church called for congregations across the country to pressure Obama to back down.
Seizing upon the issue, Republicans used the uproar to paint Obama as anti-religion.
"This rule would require faith-based employers ... to provide services they consider immoral," Boehner said, including, "sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and contraception."
In imposing this requirement, the federal government has drifted dangerously beyond its constitutional boundaries, encroaching on religious freedom in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions.
The Republican speaker said that if Obama refuses to rescind the measure, Congress will do so legislatively.
If the president does not reverse the attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.
But such a bill would have little chance of getting through a divided Congress.
While Boehner may secure backing in the Republican-dominated House, he faces problems in the Senate, which is controlled by Obama's fellow Democrats.
No matter how Congress responds, Obama is in a political bind. A retreat would anger his liberal base, while refusal to budge could alienate some Catholic voters.
But Democrats accused the Republicans of using the issue for political gains.
"Some have decided, again, to use women's health for political football," said US Representative Lois Capps, a Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also said that he and fellow Senate Democrats support the president.
Backers of Obama's new rule say employees of faith-based groups should have access to birth control services in their health insurance coverage.
Seeking to ease a controversy that has roiled the 2012 presidential race, the White House appeared to leave the door open to compromise.
Spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was sensitive to religious beliefs on contraception and hoped to find a way to implement the rule that can "allay some of the concerns."
But Obama, at a meeting with Senate Democrats, reaffirmed his decision and was "not equivocating," Senator Frank Lautenberg, who attended the closed-door session, told Reuters.
Carney said the administration was "focused on implementation of this rule," but made clear that it had time to try to address opponents' objections.
"There are ways to approach this that would ensure that the rule is implemented so that women have access to these important healthcare services no matter where they work, but also hopefully would allay some of the concerns," Carney said.
The spokesman pushed back against a New York Times report that Vice President Joe Biden and several other senior Catholic men in the administration cautioned about the political risks.
"I'm not going to get into internal deliberations," Carney told reporters.
"Broadly speaking, the reports that line certain people up in some ways on this issue were inaccurate."The Obama administration said on Tuesday it was willing to work with church-affiliated employers to implement the new policy, which was finalized on January 20 but will not take effect until next year.