Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul finds herself under fire from conservatives nationwide after saying last week that the federal government was "not looking to the Constitution" in drawing up a requirement that religiously affiliated employers provide their workers with insurance coverage for birth control.
National conservative voices ranging from the American Spectator to the Weekly Standard took shots at her over the statement, which Hochul made Friday at a town hall-style meeting in Lancaster.
And the National Republican Congressional Committee -- which aims to defeat the Amherst Democrat in the fall election -- hammered Hochul on the issue Tuesday.
"Kathy Hochul may not care about the Constitution when it comes to supporting big-government mandates, but Western New Yorkers do," said NRCC spokesman Nat Sillin. "Hochul should read the first three words of the preamble and remember -- it is 'we the people' who cast ballots in November."
At the town hall meeting, an angry, largely Catholic crowd -- pulled together by a Lancaster priest -- confronted Hochul over the Obama administration's requirement that health insurers provide coverage for contraception.
Obama initially required that employers provide the coverage but recently modified that requirement so that Catholic institutions would not have to pay for birth control coverage, though they still would have to offer insurance plans that cover contraception, with the insurance companies rather than the Catholic institutions paying for it.
But that compromise did nothing to satisfy the Lancaster crowd.
"Under what portion of the Constitution is the government allowed to require a private or religious organization to pay for anything for free?" Brad Gay, 41, of Clarence, asked Hochul.
"Well, basically, we're not looking to the Constitution on that aspect of it," Hochul replied, prompting jeers from the crowd.
"What I'm trying to say is basically the decision has been made by this Congress that American citizens are entitled to health care," she continued.
Hochul's response came as a shock both to Gay and to prominent conservative bloggers.
"I was very surprised when she said that," Gay said. "Her answer was pretty much that Congress deems that health care is a right and should be provided to all people but she didn't provide a constitutional basis for creating that particular mandate in the law. She pretty much denies that there was a constitutional basis."
The Supreme Court will hear a case later this year in which it will determine if the health care law's individual mandate is constitutional.
With that case among the hottest of Washington topics, conservative pundits were aghast at Hochul's comments.
The American Spectator's blog posted video of the exchange between Hochul and Gay, labeling it: "Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) conducts a seminar on how not to defend the Obama administration's policies to your constituents."
The Hot Air blog called the exchange a "moment in constitutional cluelessness."
Hochul acknowledged she could have explained herself better.
"I should have been clearer in saying that under Article One [of the Constitution], Congress passes the laws," she said. "If you dispute it, you go to court, where the judges will determine the constitutionality."
She noted that six appellate judges have already ruled that the health care law is constitutional.
Hochul kept her cool through much of the town hall meeting, despite jeering and boos from the crowd and signs that read: "Kathy, why have you betrayed our Catholic institutions?"
Many times, she patiently described her support for the Obama compromise, stressing her respect for the crowd and saying at one point: "I support this as a proper accommodation between access [to birth control] and our fundamental freedom of religion."
But the crowd was having none of it.
"It's an insult to the Catholics in this country to even listen to that gibberish," one man shouted.
Some in the crowd asked questions prepared and passed out by the Rev. Leon Biernat of Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Lancaster.
"Many of the parishioners said they didn't know how to frame a question," said Biernat, who asked a question during the meeting about whether the Obama policy could force Catholic hospitals to close.
Biernat echoed the Catholic bishops' view that even the Obama compromise violates religious freedom by forcing Catholic organizations to provide insurance coverage for something that is against church teachings.
Among the unasked questions on the list was one in which Biernat compared the loss of religious freedom under the Obama policy to the little-by-little loss of the rights of Jews in Germany before the Holocaust. "It's a slippery slope," Biernat said. "I do believe that is a possibility."
The priest said he asked his parishioners at his Ash Wednesday Masses to attend the town hall meeting and that he also promoted the meeting on WLOF, a Catholic radio station.
"Our parish and others in the Catholic community really stepped to the plate," he said.
But the tone of the meeting should not be misinterpreted as a reflection of public opinion on the issue. In a United Technologies/National Journal poll released Tuesday, 49 percent of respondents supported the Obama contraception compromise, while 40 percent opposed it.
Hochul noted that at another town hall meeting a day earlier in Wheatfield, she fielded only one question about the issue.
Still, she acknowledged she could have been more articulate the next day in Lancaster.
"I'm not a perfect individual," she said. "I was there for an hour and 10 minutes. Many many questions came my way. And certainly I should have been clearer."