CENTENNIAL, CO — Mitt Romney injected himself into a battle between religious groups and the Obama administration on Monday night, calling a new requirement that health care plans include coverage for contraception a "violation of conscience."
Before one of the largest crowds of his campaign, Romney decried the new rule, which requires religious institutions like hospitals, universities and charities to provide coverage for contraceptive services as part of their health care plans, regardless of the particular group's teachings on contraception.
While churches are exempt from the new requirement, it has quickly become a lightning rod issue for social conservatives, with the Catholic Church leading the charge against it.
"We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience," Romney said to an audience of nearly 3,000 people gathered in a high school gymnasium. "We'll either have a government that protects religious diversity and freedom, or we'll have a government that tells us what kind of conscience they think we ought to have."
Romney, who rarely discusses social issues unprompted on the stump, on Monday made his opposition to the mandate a major applause line at his rally outside Denver.
The issue has quickly become a part of the Republican campaign; Newt Gingrich has accused the Obama administration of waging a "war against religion" with the regulation.
Romney's comments echo a Washington Examiner op-ed piece he wrote last week, in which the former Massachusetts governor used even more forceful language to describe the new rule as "trampling" religious freedom.
"The Obama administration is forcing religious institutions to choose between violating their conscience or dropping health care coverage for their employees, effectively destroying their ability to carry on their work," Romney wrote, saying he "stands with" Catholic bishops opposed to the mandate.
Romney's focus on an issue of particular interest to Catholic voters comes on a day in which his campaign has focused its fire on Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic who has made social issues a cornerstone of his campaign.
The former Massachusetts governor's comments tonight could be seen as an attempt to try to peel away voters from Santorum, the Republican rival a Romney campaign senior adviser acknowledged could snap Romney's electoral win-streak with an upset in Minnesota or Missouri tomorrow.
Democrats called the attacks on the law hypocritical, and were quick to point out similar provisions in the healthcare law Romney passed in Massachusetts.
“It's the ultimate hypocrisy that Mitt Romney is hitting the President for the same birth control policy he oversaw and protected as Governor," Obama campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter said in a statement. "The problem for him is that women are on to him. The trust of voters is priceless in elections, and unfortunately for him it can’t be bought.”