BREAKING NEWS: Obama Exempts Religious Groups from Contraceptive Mandate

Facing growing furor from religious groups, President Obama on Friday unveiled an "accommodation" in which health insurance companies, rather than religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities, will provide employees with contraception coverage.

Houses of worship remain exempt, and the new approach effectively removes all faith-based organizations from involvement in providing contraceptive coverage or even telling employees how to find such coverage. It also maintains Obama's pledge to ensure that almost all women with health insurance will not have to pay for it.

At issue was a mandate, part of Obama's 2009 health-care overhaul, that employers provide free birth-control coverage. The mandate was announced Jan. 20 by Health & Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Religious groups, particularly Catholic, fiercly objected, saying the federal government should not force institutions to violate the tenets of their faith. Womens' advocates argued that employees should have access to birth control regardless of where they work.

Initial indications were that the White House may have found a solution on Friday to an argument that once seemed destined to dog the president throughout an election year. The high-profile fight risked alienating both women and Catholic voters – both key demographics in his bid for reelection.

Sister Carol Keehan, head the Catholic Health Association, an umbrella group for more than 600 Catholic hospitals, said Friday she is “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 — going against the wishes of the U.S. Catholic bishops — but she had voiced strong criticism of the initial contraception regulations.

Friday's decision was also welcomed by Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, who had been working hard with Democrats to keep the administration from providing any relief from the mandate to religious institutions.

“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Richards said.

The furor over the contraception mandate appeared to catch the White House off guard since Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the final regulations on Jan. 20, and did not broaden the exemption for religious groups as had been widely expected.

The administration struggled to frame the regulations as a way to ensure that women with health insurance would receive free birth control — a position that is broadly popular among Americans, and especially women.

But religious leaders, chiefly the Catholic bishops and conservative evangelicals, were successful in framing the issue as one of religious freedom, not birth control.

These conservatives were also backed by numerous Catholic liberals and other supporters of the administration who felt that Obama had “thrown them under the bus,” as some put it, by not granting the broader religious exemption. In recent days it became clear that the administration had to do something, and quickly, and the solution announced Friday seemed to win back many of his allies.

“The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance," said Keehan.

But whether that unity will extend to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was unclear.

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI. David's posts appear via RNS.

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