Democrats and Republicans sparred Thursday at a House of Representatives hearing over a mandate from President Barack Obama's administration that all health insurance plans cover birth control, underscoring how the potent issue has split lawmakers along party lines.

Republicans framed the hearing, provocatively titled Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience? as a question of fundamental First Amendment freedoms. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, denied in his opening remarks that the hearing had anything to do with the directives contained in the health care overhaul.

It's an affront to each and every American's conscience to try to narrow this down into a contraception or a women's-health issue, said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y. I'm so appalled. This is an assault on our First Amendment rights. 

Democrats countered that their GOP colleagues were ignoring underlying issues of women's health and reproductive rights. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., repeatedly noted in an impassioned speech that no women had been asked to testify, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., accused Issa of promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a war against religion.

In addition to the question of religious freedom, there's another core interest we must consider and that's the interests of women, Cummings said, adding that this committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are irrelevant or useless to this debate.

Democrats See Naked Political Tactic

Democrats also angrily accused Republicans of calling the hearing for bald political gain.

I believe today's hearing is a sham, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, accusing the political demagoguery in an election year and telling the panel of religous leaders testifying before the committee that you are being used for a political agenda.

The division paralleled a clash between interest groups hoping to play a role in the 2012 election. The New York Times noted that conservative religious groups and organizations focused on women's health are mobilizing for concerted public campaigns.

This was an unexpected gift, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican strategist, told the Times.

In response to withering attacks from Catholic groups, Obama modified the mandate so that religiously affiliated institutions could shift the cost of providing their employees with contraception coverage to health insurers. But that has failed to placate many religious groups and Republicans.

Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government, Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said during the hearing. Please get the federal government, Mr. Chairman, out of our consciences.

Such criticisms fit into an overarching Republican theme that the Obama administration has expanded the federal government's powers at the expense of individual liberties, a claim that animates the GOP's opposition to the health care overhaul's individual mandate. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum emphasized that point during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last weekend.

It's not about contraception, Santorum said. It's about economic liberty; it's about freedom of speech; it's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop.

Despite the political furor the contraceptive rule has generated, the measure appears to be less controversial among the public. A New York Times/CBS poll found that 65 percent of voters support requiring health care plans to include birth control, with 59 percent saying the mandate should extend to religiously affiliated institutions.