Obama Exempts Religious Groups from Contraception Mandate


(RNS) Facing growing furor from religious groups, President Obama on Friday (Feb. 10) unveiled an "accommodation'' in which health insurance companies, rather than religious institutions, will provide employees with contraception coverage.

The revised approach effectively removes all faith-based organizations -- not just houses of worship but also hospitals and universities -- from covering employees' contraception costs.

"Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health,'' Obama said in a midday address at the White House.

"Now, as we move to implement this rule, however, we've been mindful that there's another principle at stake here -- and that's the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution,'' Obama said. ``As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right."

At issue was a mandate, part of Obama's 2009 health care overhaul, that employers provide free birth control coverage. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the mandate Jan. 20.

Religious groups, particularly Catholics, fiercely objected, saying the federal government should not force institutions to violate the tenets of their faith. Women's advocates argued that employees should have access to birth control regardless of where they work. The furor over the contraception mandate appeared to catch the White House off guard, as it struggled to keep the focus on access to contraception, which is broadly used by American women, even Catholics.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which led the charge against the contraception mandate, said on Friday that it would study the revised rule. "While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,'' said New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB.

"We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans' consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.''

Obama was under fierce pressure to forge a compromise. Conservatives labeled the mandate an abridgment of religious freedom, a rallying cry taken up by GOP presidential candidates, including front-runner Mitt Romney.  

Under the new plan, a religiously affiliated institution would not be required to provide contraception coverage. Rather, the institution's insurance company would offer the coverage for free and without raising premiums.

Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, an umbrella group for more than 600 Catholic hospitals, said Friday she was "very pleased" with Obama's compromise, which she said "protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions."

Keehan was a key supporter of the president's health care reform law -- against the wishes of the U.S. Catholic bishops -- but she had voiced strong criticism of the initial contraception regulations.

Keehan was joined by a range of progressive Catholic groups and leaders in praising the new rules. Many of them had been upset with the administration's initial decision on the mandate.

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, also welcomed Friday's decision: "We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits,'' Richards said.

The president's plan still has some critics, however.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told CNN he thought Obama is ``just kicking the can down the road.''

"He's hasn't really addressed our concerns,'' Wenski said. "I think the only thing to do is...to take back the whole thing.''

In recent days, as they sensed the political tide turning in their favor, several USCCB officials have indicated they wanted to go for more than just a broader exemption and wanted the entire contraception mandate eliminated.

That tack may have less appeal in light of the White House's new plan. But that may not stop Catholic conservatives from keeping up the pressure on Obama.

William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League, called the new policy a "ploy" and said Catholics "will only be impelled to revolt."

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins likewise called the proposal "paperwork gimmicks.''

"This revised HHS mandate does nothing to change the fundamentally anti-religious, anti-conscience and anti-life contraceptive mandate,'' he said.

On the other side, some abortion rights supporters were also unhappy.

"This administration has shown that it will not stand with women when it comes to supporting access to, and easing the availability of, reproductive healthcare services,'' said Jon O'Brien, head of Catholics for Choice. ``One wonders what has been gained by this 'accommodation.' It certainly isn't the support of Catholics.''

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