STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
While the bishops oppose the White House over contraceptive coverage, Catholics as a whole are a different story. In polls, Catholics narrowly support the White House position. Catholics are considered swing voters, and NPR's Don Gonyea has been listening to them.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The GOP presidential hopefuls are certainly using this issue. Framing it as a question of religious freedom is a guaranteed way to fire up the conservative base. Here's Newt Gingrich.
NEWT GINGRICH: If you believe in the right to worship God without government interfering, come join us.
GONYEA: And Mitt Romney.
MITT ROMNEY: This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States.
GONYEA: And Rick Santorum.
RICK SANTORUM: What they've done is an egregious affront to religious liberty.
GONYEA: In the audience at that Santorum event in Rochester, Minnesota this week was Charles Slater, a family physician who agrees with the candidates.
CHARLES SLATER: I think a lot of people don't understand or see that that's a principle that people of Catholic faith are being asked to violate. So the mandate from the government goes beyond politics. It goes down to the very center of theology, Catholic theology, or teaching about the human person.
GONYEA: But not all Catholics share that view when it comes to birth control. In fact, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetime. And a new survey by Public Policy Polling shows that a narrow majority of Catholic voters think women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have access to contraceptive coverage through their health plans.
Among them, retired lawyer Pat Schaffer in Minneapolis. She says Catholic institutions are not being asked to supply birth control themselves, only to include such coverage in health care plans.
PAT SCHAFFER: And if the employee agrees with them, then they won't use the contraception. And if the employees, in conscience, disagree with the bishops, then it's up to the employees what to do. And I don't see how the bishops have the right to force the employee to take a particular stand any more than they have the right to control how an employee uses their wages.
GONYEA: Across the river in St. Paul, students at University of St. Thomas have been talking about this issue in classrooms and over lunch at the Student Services building. That's where I found Catholic studies, German and education major Kate Moosbrugger.
KATIE MOOSBRUGGER: I believe it's the Amish have the option to opt out of the draft, and the Quakers have the option, too. There are lots of exceptions for religious institutions in the government. And, I mean, Catholics, we don't hold that contraception is something to be supported.
GONYEA: Hanna Heinicke is also a student at St. Thomas. She acknowledges that it's all complicated, but says she has to, quote, "err on the side of the bishops."
HANNA HEINICKE: I think it's not fair that religious-run organizations would have to provide services that they feel are morally wrong.
GONYEA: But as a follow-up, I asked Heinicke about the overall health care bill signed by the president in 2010. That's something she supports.
HEINICKE: I'm actually a huge fan of it. I think everyone should have the right to have health care. I think it's a human right.
GONYEA: Yesterday in Washington, a group of women backing the White House rule on the issue held an event at the National Press Club. Their concern, amid all of the debate, is that the president stick to his guns. Callie Otto is a student at Catholic University of America.
CALLIE OTTO: I have faith in him that he will do the right thing. I will be praying that he does the right thing, but I will also be praying that the bishops can realize that they're wrong and they back down so he doesn't have so much pressure.
GONYEA: Catholics on each side of this are offering prayers. For its part, the Obama administration is looking for an answer allowing it to defend its decision while also somehow address the concerns of its opponents. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.