WASHINGTON - In a clear concession, US President Barack Obama announced on Friday, February 10, that religious employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and the onus would instead fall on insurers, a move widely welcomed by Catholic and religious groups.
"These employers will not have to pay for or provide contraceptive services," Obama said, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services just like other women.
The compromise by Obama sought to accommodate religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, outraged by a new rule that would have required them to offer free contraceptive coverage to women employees.
Instead, the revised approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all.
"Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama said.
The election-year firestorm erupted last week after Obama proposed that health insurance should cover basic birth control services for women, even at Catholic charities, hospitals and universities.
But the proposal came under fire from Catholic bishops, who argue that the policy infringes on religious liberty because the church does not condone the use of birth control pills or other contraceptives.
During the weekend, clergy from the Catholic Church called for congregations across the country to pressure Obama to back down.
Seizing upon the issue, Republicans used the uproar to paint Obama as anti-religion and put him on the defensive as signs of economic improvement appear to have re-energized his re-election bid.
Making a hurried bid to end a row which has dominated Washington for a week, Obama condemned those who had sought political gain from the episode.
I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, he said.
But it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) welcomed Obama's concession as a good first step that needed further study.
"Today's decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction," USCCB president, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, told AFP.
"We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans' consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."
The Catholic Health Association, which had also criticized the original mandate, was "very pleased" with the compromise, saying it protected religious liberty and the rights of Catholic institutions.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," said Sister Carol Keehan.
The Planned Parenthood Federation, a non-profit organization which fights for women on reproductive issues, also welcomed the decision.
"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage," said Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.