I didn’t think we had reached the point in America where providing free contraception would be seen as a risky political maneuver, but here we are. Last month, the Administration agreed to universal access to birth control as part of the Affordable Care Act. Insurance companies would need to provide coverage for contraception in both employer plans and on the insurance exchanges without a co-pay.

The ruling from the Department of Health and Human Services actually had a religious exemption to it, but only churches and religious non-profits would be exempt. Other religiously-affiliated employers – particularly hospitals and universities – were given one year to transition to coverage that offers contraception.

This set off a firestorm among the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which we saw during the Stupak amendment is a powerful force in Washington. Many bishops have said they will refuse to comply. The matter will almost certainly get sent to the courts. And of course, the opportunistic Republican Presidential candidates have jumped all over it.

The Administration has begun its pushback against the uproar, with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defending the exemption that exists in the law and why they limited it:

Today, virtually all American women use contraception at some point in their lives. And we have a large body of medical evidence showing it has significant benefits for their health, as well as the health of their children. But birth control can also be quite expensive, costing an average of $600 a year, which puts it out of reach for many women whose health plans don’t cover it [...]

In choosing this exemption, we looked first at state laws already in place across the country. Of the 28 states that currently require contraception to be covered by insurance, eight have no religious exemption at all.

The religious exemption in the administration’s rule is the same as the exemption in Oregon, New York and California.

It’s important to note that our rule has no effect on the longstanding conscience clause protections for providers, which allow a Catholic doctor, for example, to refuse to write a prescription for contraception. Nor does it affect an individual woman’s freedom to decide not to use birth control. And the president and this administration continue to support existing conscience protections.

This has a tinge of defensiveness in it. But a more offensive stance was delivered by the Irish Catholic Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley:

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) pushed back against conservative criticism of new White House rules which would require religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for birth control, calling the attacks “too much hyperventilating.”

“This is not about abortion,” said O’Malley during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. “It’s about covering contraception as part of the healthcare coverage, mandatory basic coverage.”

O’Malley, who said he was a Catholic, stressed that the decision was similar to rules already in place in much of the country. “28 states already require this and in Europe,” he added [...]

“These same rules apply in countries like Italy which have overwhelming numbers of Catholics, yet we did not see the reaction in those countries to these sorts of things,” he noted.

If conservatives want to put the right to birth control up to a public vote, I’d like to see those results. This pushback does make clear the issue of how the Catholic bishops really view women’s bodies, and while conservatives will try to position it as the President having disrespect for people of faith, I think on this issue that’s a hard sell. It’s actually much simpler than that. It’s about imposing religious beliefs on members of other faiths who work at these universities and hospitals.