MYRTLE BEACH, SOUTH CAROLINA, January 17, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Republican Party’s remaining presidential hopefuls gave a fiery and rousing performance at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center Monday night that featured a first of the debate season: a standing ovation for a participant’s answer.

In the heavily evangelical state, the issues of religious freedom, family, abstinence education, and the rights of the unborn provided many of the forum’s highlights.

Reviving the theme of a prominent television ad, former Texas Governor Rick Perry stated, “This administration is at war against organized religion.” He said, “Catholic Charities cannot take money [from] the federal government…because this administration doesn’t agree with the Catholic Church on the issue of abortion.”

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In September, the Obama administration denied millions of dollars in federal grants to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, because its top-rated program to assist victims of sexual trafficking will not refer women for an abortion. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the issue in December.

Perry also slammed the administration for “going after churches” when it asked the Supreme Court to reject the “ministerial exception,” which allows religious organizations like Christian schools to appoint their own ministers. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the administration’s argument last week.

“If that’s not a war on religion, I don’t know what it is,” Perry said to thunderous applause. “And this administration is out of control.”

The crowd also cheered Rick Santorum’s promotion of marriage and opposition to the Obama administration’s opposition to abstinence-only education.  Santorum, who tied Romney for first place in the Iowa caucuses, held out the traditional family as the best way to avoid a life of poverty. “If you look at a study that was done by the Brookings Institute back in 2009, they determined that if Americans do three things, they can avoid poverty,” he said. “Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children.” The study found only two percent of people who do all those things live in poverty, and 77 percent earn more than the national average in income.

Santorum said the Obama administration’s opposition to abstinence-only education affected a friend, former Education Secretary William Bennett’s wife Elaine, who operates a program for at-risk youth called Best Friends. Obama administration officials told Bennett her counselors “can no longer promote marriage to these young girls…They can no longer even teach abstinence education. They have to be neutral with respect to how people behave.”

“The problem is neutrality ends in poverty, neutrality ends in choices that hurt people’s lives,” Santorum said. “That is absolutely unconscionable.”

Santorum won the backing of influential evangelical Christian leaders on Saturday in the hopes he will emerge as the alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Romney, who was asked about his changing views on abortion, again discussed his most recent change. Romney replied that as governor of Massachusetts, “I thought I could go in that narrow path between my personal belief and letting government stay out of the issue. Then a piece of legislation came to my desk and it said we would begin to create embryos for the purpose of destroying those embryos, and I said I simply couldn’t sign something like that.” He penned an op-ed in the Boston Globe describing himself as pro-life, shortly before preparing to run for the Republican presidential nomination four years ago.

Same-sex “marriage” also became a hot-button issue during Romney’s time as governor. “I’ve always opposed gay marriage,” he said. “I believe that we should provide equal rights to people regardless of their sexual orientation, but I do not believe that marriage should be between two people of the same gender.” 

The highlight of the debate was Newt Gingrich’s performance. A debate that began with Gingrich on the defensive about a series of attack ads his campaign launched against Mitt Romney’s history at Bain Capital ended with him dominating the event. After moderator Juan Williams asked Gingrich if his description of Barack Obama as “the food stamp president” was insulting, he launched into a four-minute defense of work and free enterprise that ended with the boisterous crowd on its feet. “I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job,” he said.

The next discussion is Wednesday’s Presidential Pro-Life Forum in Greenville, hosted by Personhood USA. Four of the remaining five Republican presidential hopefuls will attend. Mitt Romney has decided to skip the event.

One-third of South Carolina’s voters remain undecided, just days before the state’s primary.