Obama exempts religious groups from contraception mandate

President Obama will exempt religious organizations from providing free contraception services to employees, but will require that all insurance companies do so. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

By DAVID GIBSON
c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) 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.

“Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health. Period,” Obama said in a midday appearance 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. 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. The mandate was

Official portrait of United States Health and ...

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Image via Wikipedia

announced Jan. 20 by Health & Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Religious groups, particularly Catholic, fiercely 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.

The Obama administration has rebuffed pressure from religious and nonprofit groups to lift a mandate to provide contraceptives coverage to all employees. RNS photo via istockphoto.com.

Under the new plan, a religiously-affiliated institution would provide health insurance to employees that does not include contraception. The insurance company would then directly contact employees and offer contraception or contraception coverage without cost and without raising the premiums that the religious institution pays.

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. 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.

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 Sebelius announced the final regulations without broadening 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 casting 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. Obama reportedly telephoned New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, Friday morning to tell him about the new proposal. Dolan was consulting throughout the day with other top bishops to gauge their reaction.

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 — covering women wherever they work — reversed.

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, head the Catholic League, called the new policy a “ploy” and said Catholics “will only be impelled to revolt.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins 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 still 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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