In one sense, statistics about "who does what" are irrelevant. The fight to overturn the HHS mandate forcing insurers and/or employers to cover contraception is a fight about religious freedom, and it really doesn't matter how many people use contraception and how many employers object to paying for it directly or indirectly.
It is, after all, religious minorities -- groups of people who adhere to beliefs that are unusual in the wider society -- who require the most protection and who desire the most accommodation in the civil structure. If your philosophical beliefs and practices are common, ordinary, and widespread -- such as making time for worship on the weekends, or eating only non-animal foods, or giving presents to your children on a quiet, at-home Christmas morning -- we can assume that there is some accommodation for them built right into the fabric of society, since some of your co-believers will have helped put that society together. Indeed, if we look around we see that many jobs (though not all) are available which leave room for weekend worship, that Christmas is a day when few people (though not without exception) have obligations outside the family, that vegetarianism is largely accepted and that many eating establishments offer meatless items year-round.
If you're a member of a religious minority, though, you occasionally may ask for, and legitimately receive, accommodations written into the law. Laws like the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the federal government from burdening a person's exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that it does so in furtherance of a compelling government interest AND is the least restrictive means of doing so. The mandate doesn't further the government's interest (which is stated to increase "access" to contraception, and that has been shown not to be a problem) and it's not the least restrictive means (which would be something like a rider that an employee can purchase) and so the 1993 law, enacted during the notoriously right-wing Clinton administration, almost certainly renders the HHS mandate illegal.
But it's obvious that the media is happy to wave this "98 percent of Catholic women use birth control" statistic around because someone thinks it matters, or that it will matter if enough people hear it. I think the idea must be something along these lines: Few Catholics consistently obey the Church's teachings, therefore we can make the nation think that it isn't a "real" or sincere religious belief that deserves accommodation.
If that's the case, then there is a lot of misdirection going on. Because of course the freedom that is being infringed here is not the freedom to refrain from taking contraceptive pills or being sterilized. (The government had to stop forcing people to contracept and be sterilized some time ago... must have been back in the dark ages... oh wait, it was 1981.)
No, the freedom being infringed is the freedom not to buy pills and sterilization for other people who want them. So perhaps a much, much better thing to ask is: "How many Catholic employers and insurers either cover contraceptives in their employee insurance plan or directly pay for them for their employees?"
Oops, now we have a conundrum. Because if the number is small compared to the general population of employers and insurers, well then, there just might be something to the argument that Catholic employers and insurers have a real and sincere religious belief that precludes them from paying for other people's contraceptives. And if the number is similar or large compared to the general population of employers and insurers, well, then, what exactly is the problem that needs to be solved by forcing them?
+ + +
But even the question of "how sincere is this religious belief" is misdirected. There is no test for sincerity in the Clinton-era law protecting the free exercise of religion against the federal government.
+ + +
Of U. S. Catholics:
- Fraction who say they attend Mass once a week or more: 22%.
- Fraction who say they agree that using artificial means of birth control is wrong: 22%.
(The first statistic is from CARA, a Catholic think tank. The second is from a recent CNN poll.)
Only twenty-two percent of people who call themselves Catholics are going to Mass once a week. This number is, of course, disturbingly low. Recall that weekly Mass attendance is, in the Catholic faith, compulsory (though allowances are made, on the honor system, for duties and conditions that interfere with the obligation).
Often, when you wish to define who is and who isn't a "practicing" Catholic, weekly Mass attendance is used as a reasonable proxy. It's a practice that is required by the Church, it is relatively easy to measure, and it is public. It is debatable whether this is the best proxy, but it is at least convenient.
The same proportion of Catholics agree with the teaching against artificial birth control.
+ + +
Let's do a little calculation with estimates using data from the Pew Forum. Nearly 24% of the U. S. population is Catholic. Twenty-two percent of that is 5.3% of the U. S. population. This is only a little bit more than the number of people (4.7%) who belong to non-Christian religions, who, I think most reasonable people agree, deserve careful attention to their religious accommodations because their minority status places them at the margins of public discourse. Just as unpopular speech is the speech that most needs protection, uncommon exercises of religious belief are those that most need accommodation.
We are a religious minority.
It is not what we would choose, but it is the reality we live in.