(Photo: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
Religious leaders say the newly announced change to President Obama's controversial health care law mandating contraception coverage does not resolve the underlying issue of the violation of religious liberty.
"They're missing the point when they say this is about contraception," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told CNN. "This is about religious freedom. It's a sham to say contraception isn't widely available in this country."
President Obama's remarks on Friday seemed to center around attempting to safeguard religious liberty and making sure that women have a clear pathway to obtain contraceptives.
"Today, we've reached a decision on how to move forward," Obama stated. "Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services – no matter where they work. So that core principle remains."
"But if a woman's employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company – not the hospital, not the charity – will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles," the president continued.
The Obama administration had reaffirmed last month that religious employers, excluding churches, must provide coverage of contraceptive, abortifacient and sterilization services in their employee health plans. Obama said he had planned to spend the next year working with religious leaders who object to the mandate as it violates their conscience and religious freedom to hammer out a solution. But the outcry over the past few weeks led the Obama administration to "speed up the process" and announced a solution on Friday that he believes "works for everyone."
"Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama asserted.
But conservatives and religious groups are not convinced.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the revised mandate "does nothing to change the fundamentally anti-religious, anti-conscience and anti-life contraceptive mandate."
Though Obama repeated in his Friday announcement that employers who object to the mandate "will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services" under the tweaked plan, Perkins said the new proposal "still requires religious entities that are not exempt as a church to subsidize and pay insurance companies so they can give free birth control to their employees."
"Plus, it won't be free, because the insurance companies will increase the premium and administrative costs to the employer."
Also dissatisfied with the new plan, Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Doug Napier said, "It is still forcing people of faith to subsidize practices and treatments that violate their values, their morals, and their religious beliefs."
"Innocent lives are a blessing, not a burden," Napier emphasized. "The Obama administration is hiding behind the argument that it is better to eliminate babies before we incur economic 'cost,' but it is just another extension of ObamaCare – only now, it's a 'death panel at birth.'
"Contrary to the administration's spin, the issue is not about 'accommodating' religion; this is about acknowledging a fundamental religious liberty not given by the government, but endowed by our Creator. The administration is trying to take away what it can't give."
Most social conservatives point to two primary reasons Obama decided to put forth a new proposal on Friday.
First, was the outpouring of protests from religious institutions and employers who felt the Obama administration was intent on laying down a mandate that violate fundamental beliefs at the sake of government intervention.
The other compelling reason most likely centered on election-year politics.
Leading Democratic members of the Senate and House were backing away from the president, with some indicating they may support Republican initiatives that if passed, would have been a severe blow to the president in a critical election year.
The White House said the opposition of some Democrats did not broadside them, but their input did influence the president and his staff to tweak the mandate.
Organizations friendly to the Obama administration such as Catholic Health Association, which supported the initiatives from the beginning, and Catholic Charities embraced the new changes.
"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," Carol Keehan, head of CHA, said in a written statement before the president's official announcement.
It is unclear if the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, would support the plan given their fierce opposition prior to Friday's announcement. It was reported that President Obama did call Bishop Dolan before making his remarks.
However, after hanging up with the president, Dolan held a conference call with other bishops to apprise them of the situation.
Dolan said in a statement that the tweaked plan "is a first step in the right direction" but he added that they are reserving judgment until they have the details of the new plan.
Administration officials have indicated they plan to call a meeting with religious leaders in the next few days to go over the changes in detail.