WASHINGTON — Sitting in his pew at St. Louis Catholic Church in Miami one recent Sunday, Sen. Marco Rubio heard the same homily as other parishioners who were urged by church leaders nationwide to contact Congress about the use of contraceptives.
Uniquely positioned to act, the Florida Republican senator last week filed legislation that would repeal the part of the federal health care law that requires some religious institutions to offer contraceptives and family planning services without a co-payment in their health insurance coverage.
"I'm glad that somebody is listening when they read those letters," joked Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who heads the Archdiocese of Miami and who sent out copies in English and Spanish for his priests to read on Sunday.
Rubio, a Catholic, has always opposed abortion, including during his days in the Florida Legislature. In recent weeks, though, he has emerged as one of the leading national warriors in the politically explosive cultural war over what sort of health care women have access to.
His leadership on the issue is set against the backdrop this week of a national debate: the Susan G. Komen For the Cure breast cancer charity's decision to end — then restore following an outcry — grants for breast cancer detection to Planned Parenthood.
Last week alone, Rubio keynoted the annual banquet of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political organization that helps anti-abortion office-seekers get elected, and he introduced the bill that would exempt religious institutions from complying with the contraception requirement. He has previously said he would vote to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives federal money to provide health care for poor women and men. The organization provides abortion services, which have long been opposed by conservative groups.
At this point, Rubio has garnered 20 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate for the Religous Freedom Restoration Act. A version of the bill in the Republican-dominated House stands a better chance of passage than in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Rubio defended his legislation Friday in an op-ed in the New York Post.
"From a practical standpoint, this will force Catholic organizations to make an unacceptable choice: Ignore a major tenet of their faith, or not provide any insurance to their employees and be punished with a federal fine for violating ObamaCare's mandate on employers," Rubio wrote. "As Americans, we should all be appalled by an activist government so overbearing and so obsessed with forcing mandates on the American people that it forces such a choice on religious institutions."
The Obama administration defends its policy, noting that it gave religious institutions an extra year to comply with the rule, which requires most policies issued after August to offer contraceptives. Individual churches that only serve a narrow population with similar beliefs can also seek exemptions, the White House notes.
The administration also takes pains to note that 28 states already require insurers to provide contraceptives. The requirements in North Carolina, New York and California are identical to the federal requirements, said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemptions at all for for churches or other houses of worship, the White House said.
"We want to make sure that women have access to good health care, no matter where they work, and that all women who want access to contraceptives are able to get them without paying a co-pay every time they go to the pharmacy," Carney said. "It merely requires that insurance companies provide coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them, which is the recommendation of the non-partisan Institute of Medicine."
That won't work for the Archdiocese of Miami, which has 100 parishes, 40 schools, several nursing homes and 6,000 employees, who are not all Catholic.
"We're being told by the U.S. government that unless we only serve a very narrow group of people that are strictly Catholic, we have to comply with something that we feel is evil," Wenski said.
"What do I have to do then, violate my conscience or get out of the insurance business?" he said, noting that it's not a legal option for such a large employer to drop insurance, either. "It is a definitely overreach by the administration."
Rubio calls his legislation "a common sense bill that simply says the government can't force religious organizations to abandon the fundamental tenets of their faith because the government says so." It doesn't "forbid women from pursuing birth control and other affected products." he said.
"If an employee wants birth control, that worker could simply pay for it themselves or just choose to work elsewhere," he said. "What it does forbid is having government force religious entities to provide them."
Rubio said earlier this week that he would never impose his own views on other Catholics, but that he and his wife, who have four children, practice the official church policy, which bans contraception. "I can tell you that none of my children were planned," he told a reporter from Politico.
He told the young anti-abortion activists at the Susan B. Anthony dinner that even though some in politics have urged him away from social issues, he won't turn his back on his anti-abortion views.
"I've had people tell me, 'We love your tax policy, your fiscal policy. Just don't do the social stuff. It turns people off,'" he said. "We are called to different tasks, whatever that may be. If we stand for these things, if we honor God in these things, he'll honor us, he'll bless us."
Another high-profile Florida politician, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had a far different take on the latest salvo in the so-called cultural war. As a breast cancer survivor, she supported both Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood.
"This week, Americans made it clear that they support women having access to vital breast health services, including breast cancer prevention and awareness," Wasserman Schultz said. "This outcome is proof of the power of collective voices coming together to effect change and save women's lives."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2012