By Elise Viebeck - 08/01/12 10:07 PM EDT
The Senate's most senior member called out a Republican congressman for comparing the federal birth-control mandate to the events of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, 2001.
Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a World War II veteran who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack, said comments by Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) were "misguided" and "insulting."
"It is complete nonsense to suggest that a matter discussed, debated, and approved by the Congress and the President is akin to a surprise attack that killed nearly 2,500 people and launched our nation into the second World War, or a terrorist attack that left nearly 3,000 dead and led to fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Inouye added that Kelly should "share his comparison" with veterans from the two ongoing wars.
Kelly's office responded in a statement later in the day: "The HHS mandate is an undeniable and unprecedented attack on Americans’ First Amendment rights. Our freedoms and way of life have been under attack before, from both internal and external threats. If we fail to defend our constitutional rights, we risk losing the freedoms that so many brave men and women have given their lives to defend throughout the course of our nation’s history.
"We will not turn a blind eye to the HHS mandate’s attack on our religious freedom and we will work to stop this unconstitutional mandate from taking away our God-given and constitutionally protected freedoms."
Under the new contraception policy, which took effect Wednesday, most employers must cover birth control in their health plans without a co-pay.
Republicans see the mandate as a violation of religious freedom for people who object to birth control or consider some forms equal to abortion.
At a midday press conference Wednesday, Kelly, along with Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), said the date deserves remembrance alongside Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
"I know in your mind you can think of the times America was attacked," said the freshman congressman.
"One is December 7 — that is Pearl Harbor Day. Another was September 11 — that was the day of the terrorist attack.
"I want you to remember August 1, 2012 — the attack on our religious freedom. That is a date that will live in infamy, along with those other dates."
The new policy covers a range of preventive healthcare services apart from birth control, including disease screenings and counseling for women who are breastfeeding or are victims of domestic violence.
But the birth-control provision remains the most controversial, and 24 lawsuits have been filed in response.
Under the policy, employees of some religiously affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and schools, will receive birth control directly from their insurance company, still without a co-pay. Churches and houses of worship are exempt altogether.
—Erik Wasson contributed.
This post has been updated to include a response from Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.).