BOSTON — The debate over the line between religious freedom and federal health care mandates has made its way into Massachusetts' closely watched U.S. Senate race, with Republican Sen. Scott Brown accusing his chief Democratic rival of wanting to "dictate to religious people about what they should believe."
Consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren has responded by criticizing Brown for signing on to a Republican-backed bill that would allow employers and health care plans to deny coverage for any service they say violates their moral or religious beliefs.
"This is a completely new attack that threatens everyone's health care," Warren said Wednesday. "This bill would allow any employer or insurance company to refuse to cover anyone for anything."
Brown, however, said Warren is trying to stifle religious liberties by supporting a proposal from President Barack Obama that would allow workers at religious affiliated institutions to get free contraception directly from insurers.
"Now, it is Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren who has assumed the mantle of oppressor," Brown said in a statement. "She and her allies on the left are dictating to Catholics and other people of faith that they must do as they are told when it comes to health care or face the consequences."
Brown has intensified his criticism of Warren by invoking the memory of the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Catholic who held the same Senate seat for nearly a half-century before his death from brain cancer in 2009.
In a letter to Pope Benedict XVI that year, a dying Kennedy wrote of his support for "a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field." Kennedy made the statement in the context of the debate over Obama's national health care bill.
"Like Ted Kennedy, I support a religious conscience exemption in health care," said Brown, who won the 2010 special election to fill Kennedy's seat.
The invocation of the Kennedy name is designed to resonate in a state with a high number of Catholic voters, some of whom may disagree with their church on the contraception issue but could be sensitive to the question of religious freedom.
Neither Brown nor Warren is Catholic.
The fight stems from an effort by Obama to require church-affiliated employers to pay for birth control for their workers.
That effort met with stiff resistance from Catholic leaders who said it would force them to violate the teachings of the church, which opposes contraception.
Obama has offered what he says is a compromise that would allow workers at religious institutions to get free contraception directly from health insurers. The offer has failed to satisfy church leaders.
The top U.S. Catholic bishop has vowed to fight the compromise in Congress and through the courts.
There are two proposals in the U.S. Senate designed to respond to the concerns of Catholic and other religious leaders by creating wider religious and moral exemptions.
One, proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would allow any employers to deny birth control coverage if it runs counter to their religious or moral beliefs.
Another bill by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. would go further by allowing health plans to deny coverage for any service that violates their beliefs.
The White House has called the legislation "dangerous and wrong."
Brown has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Blunt bill. He said he backs the bill because it protects religious liberties.
"I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith," Brown said, adding that the measure would restore protections in federal law "that existed prior to the passage of Obamacare."
But Warren has called the bill "an irresponsible assault on the health care of every family in Massachusetts and around our country," particularly women.
"Scott Brown is on the wrong side here, standing with Washington and Republican extremists and against the people of Massachusetts," Warren said in a statement.
As a state lawmaker, Brown faced a similar question a decade ago.
Brown was a member of the Massachusetts House in 2002, when lawmakers were debating a state bill that would do much the same as Obama's initial proposal by requiring employers that purchase insurance plans in Massachusetts to pay for contraceptives.
During the debate, Brown supported an amendment that would have created an exemption for larger church affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities.
The amendment was defeated.
Brown ultimately voted in favor of the main bill, which did include an exemption for smaller religious employers that meet the definition of a church or "church-controlled organization"
The bill was signed by former Republican acting Gov. Jane Swift. It remains state law.
Brown's campaign defended his votes, saying Brown wanted to support the conscience amendment, but wasn't willing to scuttle the whole bill.
The issue has also proved tricky for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Romney has faulted Obama for attempting an "assault on religion," even though as governor, Romney was largely silent about the state law requiring nearly the same contraceptive coverage.