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Explaining Conflicting Polling Data on Obama's Birth Control Mandate

Ever since the Obama administration touched off a furious national debate with its decision to require all employers to facilitate and subsidize "free" birth control coverage for their employees, advocates on both sides of the question have sought to position themselves as representative of mainstream public opinion.  Opponents of the unconstitutional mandate have seized upon national polling from Rasmussen Reports, while Obama supporters frequently cite DailyKos-affiliated Democratic pollster PPP.  Here's a look at the two polls' respective outcomes, which seem irreconcilable:


Rasmussen- Half of voters do not agree with the Obama administration’s action forcing Catholic institutions to pay for birth control measures that they morally oppose. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 39% of Likely U.S. Voters believe the government should require a church or religious organization to provide contraceptives for women even if it violates their deeply held beliefs. Fifty percent (50%) disagree and oppose such a requirement that runs contrary to strong beliefs...

PPP - A strong majority (57 percent) of voters think that women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women, while only 39 percent say these institutions should be exempted from the requirement that health plans cover prescription birth control with no additional out-of-pocket costs because contraception runs counter to Catholic teachings.

The two polling firms also reached diametrically opposed conclusions about how Catholic voters, who comprise roughly one quarter of the US electorate, view the controversy:

Rasmussen - Sixty-five percent (65%) of Catholic voters oppose this requirement, as do 62% of Evangelical Christians, and 50% of other Protestants.

PPP - Notably, a 53 percent majority of Catholics agree with this [mandate], including 60 percent of independents.


Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that both organizations are equally reputable, employ sound methodologies, and refrain from inventing numbers out of whole cloth (as Daily Kos' previous polling partner did).  With those stipulations in place, what might explain their colliding findings on this hot-button question?  As is so often the case, question wording plays a decisive role in evaluating the disconnect.  Here are the verbatim questions respondents were asked by each firm:

Rasmussen - The requirement to provide contraceptives for women violates deeply held beliefs of some churches and religious organizations. If providing such coverage violates the beliefs of a church or religious organization, should the government still require them to provide coverage for contraceptives?

PPP - Some people say that institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities should be exempted from the requirement that health plans cover prescription birth control with no additional out of pocket costs, because contraception runs counter to Catholic teachings. Other people say that women of all faiths who are employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women. Which view do you agree with -- Catholic hospitals and universities should be exempted from covering prescription birth control, or that women who are employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women?


The differences in wording and emphasis are stark.  Rasmussen highlights the "violation" of "deeply held" religious beliefs, and asks if the government should "still" require religious organizations to comply, over the religious objections.  If they had used the word "force" or "coerce" in lieu of "require," they would probably have elicited an even more negative response.  PPP, on the other hand, primarily frames the question as an issue of equal "rights" to free contraception.  The wording also appeals to religious pluralism ("women of all faiths"), which may muddy the waters on religious liberty.  In other words, Rasmussen accentuates the fundamental First Amendment issue, while PPP places the "equal right" to free birth control on par with religious considerations.  The first approach draws more attention to the state's unconstitutional intrusion into matters of the church; the second implies that the church may be stepping on the rights of others by abiding by its doctrine within its own institutions. 

Regrettably, Americans are split evenly (at best) over the question of whether no-cost birth control is a "right," as recently imagined by Obama's Department of Health and Human services.  I'm all in favor of affordable access to contraception, but as Wall Street Journal columnist and religious agnostic James Taranto argues, governmental coercion and religious freedom are the bigger issues at stake:


This columnist likes birth control a lot. To our mind, it is one of the greatest conveniences of modern life. As we are not Catholic, we don't share the church's moral objections to abortifacient drugs or sterilization procedures. But as we are American, we care a lot about religious liberty, and about liberty more generally. Thus we view the birth-control mandate as a particular outrage and ObamaCare more generally as a monstrosity...Religious liberty--no scare quotes for us--is one of America's basic principles, the first freedom in the Bill of Rights. The separation of church and state protects religious minorities, and nonreligious ones, from the coercive imposition of religious law. It is also a bulwark against a secular government's impositions on private conscience.

It's true that (a) the First Amendment is not absolute (shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater isn't protected free speech), and (b) certain religious practices have been stamped out by the federal government in the past (bigamy, for instance).  On the latter point, there's a meaningful distinction in this case, wherein the government is compelling an affirmative action, rather than forbidding some sort of behavior.  Regarding the former, the First Amendment is as sacrosanct as any of our guaranteed Constitutional liberties, so the "compelling state interest" bar to curtail those freedoms is -- and should be -- unusually high.  Secularists are welcome to make the case that universally free birth control, a "right" that was invented five minutes ago, should supersede the First Amendment's free exercise clause.  Constitutionalists will contend the opposite, and most Americans will agree -- if the issue is presented properly. 


Americans across all levels of civic awareness, and especially younger voters, tend to gravitate toward arguments that employ the language of "rights."  This impulse helps explain why the public opinion on the 'Big Two' social issues are moving in divergent directions.  On marriage, the right of same-sex couples to marry or form a similar union strikes a growing number of voters as more compelling than the nebulous right of society to codify sexual mores.  On abortion, those who prioritize the right of an unborn child not to be dismembered in the womb are approximately neck-and-neck with those who place greater value on a woman's right to choose whether to have her unborn child dismembered -- with Millenials trending more pro-life than the two generations directly preceding them.  As these examples demonstrate, the side that most effectively claims and holds the rhetorical high ground on "rights" often prevails in the court of public opinion, hence the fight playing out in the public arena today.   I'll leave you with a number links to important pieces written about this critical debate:

(1) National Review explains why the president's "compromise" solution is nothing of the sort.

(2) Tim Carney and Ross Douthat eviscerate one of the Left's arguments in favor of the mandate.

(3) Prominent Catholic leaders, including members of Notre Dame's faculty, continue to excoriate Obama's decision as a "grave violation of religious freedom."  They're not buying the "compromise," either.

(4) Fifty-nine percent of Catholic voters now disapprove of President Obama's job performance.

(5) The pseudo Obama "accommodation" does not protect self-insured religious institutions, like the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.



UPDATE - Pew research finds that a slim plurality (48-44 percebt) opposes Obama's mandate and say religious organizations should be extended exemptions.  Within the Pew survey, Catholics oppose Obama's decision by a 16-point margin.

UPDATE II - Hot Air's Jazz Shaw posits that a point of departure may the the distinction between churches and religious institutions like schools and hospitals.  Even PPP finds broad opposition to government coercion of the former group.  Even if average folks find an important distinction between churches and those churches' inextricably affiliated organizations, the Supreme Court does not.  Here's their recent unanimous decision, establishing a "ministerial exception" for religious organizations.  Whether that principle applies here may very well end up in court.  It may not be 9-0, but I'd bet the court (which, by the way, includes six Catholics) will strike down the latest violation.


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