When he was running to fill the office left vacant by the death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Republican Scott Brown famously declared: “It’s not the Kennedy seat. And it’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat.’’
Yet as he seeks to win a full six-year term, the freshman Massachusetts senator has been quick to invoke the legacy of the late “liberal lion’’ - never more vigorously than during the fight in Washington over whether to exempt religiously affiliated institutions from mandated birth control coverage.
Democrats, still stinging over the loss of the seat Kennedy held for nearly a half-century, are crying foul.
Brown, who favors giving employers and health insurers broad moral and religious exemptions in health care coverage, has repeatedly quoted a letter that Kennedy, who was dying from brain cancer, asked President Obama to hand-deliver to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in 2009.
In the letter, Kennedy admitted to “human failings’’ and asked for the pope’s prayers.
But Brown has seized on a portion of the letter in which the prominent Catholic politician tells the pope that he believes “in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field.’’ Kennedy made the comments in the context of the fight over Obama’s health care overhaul bill.
In interviews, an online video message, and a new radio ad, Brown argues that Kennedy’s letter mirrors his own position.
“Like Ted Kennedy before me, I support a conscience exemption in health care for Catholics and other people of faith,’’ Brown says in the radio ad, which began running yesterday.
Democrats say that while Kennedy wanted to protect individual Catholic doctors, nurses, and hospitals from being forced to perform such procedures as abortions, Brown would give employers wide latitude to deny benefits like contraception coverage to their workers, including non-Catholics.
“Kennedy was interested in protecting the rights of individuals. Brown is trying to take away the rights of individuals,’’ said John McDonough, a Democrat who served on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions when Kennedy was chairman.
“Brown is taking something Kennedy supported and is exponentially expanding it to something Kennedy never would have supported,’’ added McDonough, now a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In an interview last night, Brown reiterated that his position is consistent with that of the late senator. “Senator Kennedy was my senator,’’ he said. “We have things in common, whether it’s Cape Wind, this issue, a whole host of issues . . .’’
Brown’s chief Democratic rival, Elizabeth Warren, has seized on Brown’s cosponsoring of the waiver amendment proposed by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri.
In a radio ad also released yesterday, Warren said the amendment “threatens women’s access to contraception, mammograms, even maternity care.’’
“It’s just plain wrong,’’ Warren says in the ad. “This isn’t about the rights of religious institutions. We must respect those rights . . . but the president also made sure that women can get the health care they need. That’s the right approach.’’
Obama has offered what he says is a compromise that would allow workers at religious institutions to get free contraception directly from health insurers.
While Warren’s ad mentions contraception or birth control four times, Brown’s ad focuses on the issue of religious freedom.
Brown’s decision to cast the debate over contraception coverage as an issue of religious freedom in a state with a significant Catholic population could also be an attempt to win over voters uneasy with what they see as an overreach of government authority, regardless of whether they use contraception themselves.
Brown is facing a tough reelection campaign. Although one recent poll showed him with a 9-percentage-point lead over Warren, other polls have had the two locked in a tight race.
Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe staff contributed to this report.