WASHINGTON — Sitting in a 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.
Last week, the Florida Republican senator introduced legislation that would repeal a part of President Barack Obama's health care law requiring some religious institutions to offer their employees contraceptive coverage and family planning services as part of their health insurance.
"I'm glad that somebody is listening when they read those letters," joked Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who heads the Archdiocese of Miami.
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 national leaders in the politically explosive cultural war over what sort of health care women have access to.
His stance is set against the backdrop of a national debate: the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer charity's decision to end — and then restore, following an outcry — grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer detection.
Last week alone, Rubio keynoted the annual banquet of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political organization that supports antiabortion office-seekers, 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 also provides abortion services, long opposed by conservative groups.
Rubio has 20 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A version of the bill in the Republican-dominated House stands a better chance of passage than the version in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The senator defended his bill in an op-ed piece in the New York Post on Friday.
"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."
In defending its policy, the Obama administration noted that it gave religious institutions an extra year to comply with the rule, which requires that most insurance policies issued after August pay for contraceptive services. Individual churches that serve only a narrow population with similar beliefs can also seek exemptions, the White House said.
The administration also takes pains to highlight that 28 states already require insurers to cover the cost of 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 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 nonpartisan Institute of Medicine."
The Archdiocese of Miami has 100 parishes, 40 schools, several nursing homes and 6,000 employees, not all of whom are 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 conscious or get out of the insurance business?" he asked. "It is a definite overreach by the administration."
When he introduced his bill, Rubio called 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." He said it doesn't "forbid women from pursuing birth control and other affected products."
"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 told POLITICO last 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.
He told the young antiabortion activists at the Susan B. Anthony dinner that even though some in politics have urged him to steer clear of social issues, he won't turn his back on his antiabortion 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."