A controversy has erupted over the decision by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to invite President Barack Obama to deliver the school's commencement address next month. Anti-abortion activists in particular oppose the invitation and are planning protests.
The president will receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame and will speak to graduates on May 17.
The combination of Mr. Obama's support for abortion rights and Notre Dame's status as one of the leading Roman Catholic universities in the United States has mobilized anti-abortion groups to oppose the invitation.
"My name is Randall Terry. I am the founder of Operation Rescue. And for Notre Dame to invite Obama is to give him a platform, to confirm what he has done and give it legitimacy and credibility," he said.
Terry spoke to a handful of people during a recent demonstration outside the White House. Two of the protesters wore Obama masks covered in fake blood. More protests are planned for the speech in May.
The Reverend Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and an expert on U.S. Catholics at Georgetown University in Washington.
Father Reese says the Obama appearance at Notre Dame has become a flashpoint for anti-abortion activists and conservative Catholics.
"The fact that it is the President of the United States this time, and also that he is speaking at Notre Dame, has simply intensified the debate and the discussion," he said.
Some support president's visit
Although some students at Notre Dame may join in the protest, many more seem eager to have the president speak.
This is White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
"The president accepted the gracious invitation," Gibbs said. "He looks forward to speaking and sharing a very important reflection and time of achievement for the graduates of Notre Dame."
President Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote in last November's election. But some conservative Catholics are unhappy with his decisions to reverse Bush administration policies that placed limits on embryonic stem cell research and funding for family planning efforts overseas.
But experts note that there are areas where the interests of the Obama administration and many Catholics coincide.
The Reverend David Hollenbach is a Jesuit priest and a theology professor at Boston College.
"The overlap with teachings of the church on issues of commitment to peace and moving away from the war in Iraq is very much in compatibility with the position of the Pope and of the U.S. Catholic Bishops," he said.
Activists aim to energize pro-life movement
But anti-abortion activists like Randall Terry see the president's visit to Notre Dame as a chance to reinvigorate the pro-life movement and social conservative causes in general.
"The pro-life movement right now is in a shambles," Terry said. "We have been overrun. So, to my pro-life leader friends around the country, get off your hind end and fight. You have an opportunity here to fight and to rekindle the fervor of the pro-life movement."
The Catholic Church opposes abortion as a matter of doctrine.
But American Catholics remain divided over the issue, says Father Reese of Georgetown.
"But a number of Catholics, frankly, if you look at the polls, are pro-choice themselves and are not in favor of making abortion illegal," he noted. "So this is an issue about which the Catholic people have been divided for a long time."
Father David Hollenbach of Boston College says even though President Obama supports abortion rights, he has reached out to abortion opponents and expressed a desire for fewer abortions.
"I think the country as a whole, though, has become somewhat tired of the [argument that] either you are pro-choice or you are pro-life and you are on one side or the other," he said. "I do not think that division of being on sides about this issue is driving the American political debate today."
Father Thomas Reese supports Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama. Father Reese sees the Obama visit as an opportunity for dialogue and debate.
"Colleges and universities should be places where debate happens, where arguments and dialogue and conversation happen over the important issues that face our country, and abortion is one of those issues," he said.
Mr. Obama will be the sixth U.S. president to deliver a commencement address at Notre Dame, following in the footsteps of former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.