Here’s an interesting piece of data from Tuesday’s exit polls: President Obama won the Catholic vote. The margin was narrow — 50%-48%, which more or less mirrors the President’s popular-vote victory — but, still, he won. Now, you might say, this isn’t surprising. Catholics have traditionally leaned Democratic, and President Obama’s campaign stressed social justice concerns that resonate with Catholic teaching. One should remember, though, that the Obama Administration imposed the contraception mandate, and that Catholic bishops made the mandate a salient issue. Requiring Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees, the bishops said, seriously threatens Catholics’ religious freedom. Apparently, the majority of Catholic voters disagreed. Or thought that the threat to religious freedom, if it existed, was not as important as other issues, like increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and leaving entitlement programs untouched. Perhaps Latino Catholics voted “ethnicity” rather than “religion.” Who knows? The point is, the majority of Catholic voters apparently did not accept the bishops’ understanding of the importance of the issue.
Leaving aside whether voters who disregard their bishops’ views on the contraception mandate are erring as Catholics – a question on which I’m not qualified to state an opinion – I wonder what implications this vote has for the future of the mandate. Legally, the lawsuits under RFRA will go forward, and I think they have a fair shot at success. But the atmosphere may have changed. It won’t show up expressly in judicial opinions, of course, but I wonder whether judges who support the mandate won’t feel more emboldened to find that the mandate doesn’t “substantially burden” Catholic institutions. And I wonder whether the Obama Administration won’t feel more comfortable taking a hard line on whatever “accommodation” they are preparing for the final regulations, due before August 2013. The courts may or may not follow the election returns, but politicians surely do.