(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Obama announced a compromise on Friday to the controversial contraception mandate in an attempt to appease religious groups that oppose the rule.
Under the new plan, religious organizations such as hospitals and charities will not be required to pay for or provide contraceptive services to employees if they object to it. But women who work for such institutions will still have access to those services directly through the insurance company at no extra cost.
Obama said at a White House press briefing that this new rule would both protect religious liberty and ensure every woman has access to the care she needs.
"Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her health. Period," Obama asserted.
But he added, "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," he affirmed.
The compromise comes amid uproar over the Obama administration's decision to mandate coverage of contraceptive, abortifacient and sterilization services without an exemption for all religious institutions. That mandate was reaffirmed last month, prompting Catholics and evangelicals to cry foul over what they viewed as an egregious religious freedom violation.
Evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Timothy George expressed their concerns in an open letter to fellow believers on Wednesday. "We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime," they stressed.
Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church also made his objection clear, tweeting earlier this week, "I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a govement mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29."
The original plan included an exemption for churches but not for faith-based institutions such as hospitals, universities and charities.
While faith-based groups were given an additional year to comply with the rule, Catholic and evangelical leaders were outraged and said they would not violate their conscience now or a year later.
Obama explained on Friday that his administration planned to spend that one year hammering out a solution with religious groups.
But he acknowledged that amid uproar these past few weeks, "It became clear spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option."
He thus directed the Department of Health and Human Services last week to speed up the process and spend a week or two on a solution rather than a year.
They reached a decision today, he said.
"I've been confident from the start that we can work out a sensible approach here," Obama stated. "This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions."
The president said confidently that the new rule "works for everyone."