Support for a religious exemption to the contraceptive mandate in the U.S. health reform plan is stronger among Catholics, especially those who attend church weekly, than among the general population, according to a new survey.

The poll released Feb. 14 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that 55 percent of Catholics who have heard about the controversy support giving religious institutions that object to the use of contraceptives an exemption from the regulation, while 39 percent oppose such an exemption.

The figures were reversed for respondents without a religious affiliation. Thirty-nine percent of those respondents said they supported an exemption, while 55 percent opposed it.

Among Catholics who attend church at least once a week, 63 percent said they favored a religious exemption, while 25 percent said religious organizations should be required to cover contraception like other employers.

White evangelical Protestants were even more likely to support the religious exemption, with 68 percent in favor and 22 percent opposed. Only 44 percent of white mainline Protestants supported the exemption, while 46 percent opposed it. The sample size of black Protestants was too small to be statistically significant.

The survey, taken Feb. 8-12 among 1,501 adults, found that the 62 percent of Americans who had heard at least a little about the issue were nearly evenly split in their opinions.

Close to half (48 percent) said they supported the religious exemption, while 44 percent said they opposed it. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the general sample, but the margin of error was larger for the various subgroups.

The Pew poll was one of several taken in the days immediately before and after President Barack Obama announced Feb.10 a revision to the Department of Health and Human Services' regulation that employers, including most religious employers, provide in their health plans no-cost coverage of contraception and sterilization.

In what was termed an accommodation to religious employers, Obama said religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives if they were morally opposed to them, but the health insurers that provide the plan would be required to offer them free of charge to women who requested such coverage.

Because different polls phrased their questions differently, the results sometimes varied.

Pew asked whether "religiously affiliated institutions that object to the use of contraceptives (should) be given an exemption from this rule, or should they be required to cover contraceptives like other employers."

In a similar survey taken Feb. 6-7, before Obama's announcement, Rasmussen Reports asked, "Should health insurance companies be required by law to cover government-approved contraceptives for women without co-payments or other charges to the patient?" Forty-three percent of respondents said yes and 46 percent said no.

Rasmussen then asked, "If providing such coverage violates the beliefs of a church or religious organization, should the government still require them to provide coverage for contraceptives?" Thirty-nine percent said yes and 50 percent said no.

Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Catholic likely voters said they did not believe the government should require religious organizations to cover contraceptives.

The margin of error for the Rasmussen Reports survey was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

A New York Times/CBS News survey taken Feb. 8-13 among 1,197 Americans asked whether respondents support or oppose "a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients." Two-thirds (66 percent) said they supported the requirement and 26 percent said they opposed it.

The survey then asked whether they supported or opposed the requirement that the health insurance plans of "religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university" "must cover "the full cost of birth control for their female employees." Sixty-one percent said they supported it, and 31 percent opposed it.

The margin of error for the Times/CBS poll was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Although the Times also reported that "a majority" of Catholics supported the requirement that religiously affiliated employers cover contraceptives at no cost, the exact religious breakdown was not made public.

A Gallup poll released Feb. 14 did not specifically ask about the contraceptive mandate, but found that Catholics' opinions of Obama was not changed by the accommodation he announced Feb. 10.

Asked whether they approve or disapprove of the job Obama is doing as president, 49 percent of Catholics polled in the week before the announcement and 46 percent of Catholics surveyed after the announcement said they approved.

The change was within the margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, Gallup said.

"Catholics are typically an important swing voting group in U.S. elections, so a president is at some political risk if he pursues a policy that could anger Catholics," said an analysis of the poll results by Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup. "So far, though, it appears the controversy over religious group employer health plans and contraception has not had a significantly negative effect on how rank-and-file Catholics view the president."


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