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White House Bends On Birth Control Requirement For Religious Groups

Under increasing pressure, the White House has offered what it's calling an "accommodation" to religious groups on a requirement to cover birth control free of charge.

Even some Democrats, who generally support the policy of requiring most employers to offer no-cost contraception, were unhappy with the rule's reach.

But the change unveiled by the White House isn't expected to completely quell the uproar raised by Catholics and others who say the policy violates their freedom of religion.

The change would allow employers that have religious objections to offering contraception as part of their health plans to turn the responsibility over to insurance companies instead.

As a result, "nurses, teachers, janitors and others" who work for religious-based hospitals, universities and social service agencies "will still have access" to contraception without having to pay a copay or deductible, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Friday morning.

But at the same time, he said, "religious liberty will be fully protected."

Women's groups were cautiously pleased with the change.

"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "However, we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care."

Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which oversees more than 600 Catholic hospitals, praised the change in a statement.

"We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished," she said. "The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance."

Before the change, the Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center told NPR there was no reason for Catholic bishops to settle on the issue, because they've been winning the public relations battle. "They're getting support from progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics," Reese says, "so the bishops are on a roll."

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