Senior White House officials spoke in advance of an announcement from President Obama, expected later today, highlighting a “common sense accommodation” seeking to end a public dispute with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over new requirements for contraception services in health care plans. Under revised guidelines offered today, a religious exemption from those new requirements for services will still apply to church entities such as parishes and dioceses, but non-profit religious employers will no longer be required to offer contraception, pay for it via insurance premiums or refer employees to contraception benefits outside their plans. A senior White House official said the administration believes the changes reflect "a health care policy that accommodates religious liberty while protecting women."
Instead, senior White House officials said insurance providers will directly reach out to employees of Catholic not-for-profits who may be seeking contraception and provide the services free of charge. Contraception would be available then to any employee of religous not-for-profits who desire it, but the employer will not be involved in providing the service. The White House argues that contraception services are cost-neutral, in fact save insurers money, so no additional premium is required to pay for them. That aspect of the plan may still raise eyebrows at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops worried over comingling of funding. A source there said, “They’ve framed this as a fight over religious liberty; they can’t pivot over to contraception … There could be some who still want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
“Let’s not do that,” he said, calling the weeks of sometimes acrimonious public dispute over HHS guidelines a “painful but important” discussion about religion and society. “This is a significant moment in the life of the nation, that we have had this discussion and raised public consciousness about the role of religion in society.”
That source reported that President Obama personally called U.S.C.C.B. President N.Y. Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Rome this morning to report the White House decision. The Obama administration is trying to tamp down a controversy that was promising to cost them moderate and liberal Catholic votes in November, while still placating their Democratic base.
The White House quickly circulated a news release from Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, supporting the new position, which also drew support from Planned Parenthood officials. “The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” said Sister Keehan. “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed. 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. The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance. This difference has at times been uncomfortable but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy.”
The new exemption language was praised by John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life. "This decision," Gehring said, "shows the White House respects the Catholic community and concerns of diverse religious leaders. It's clear that the president worked very hard to protect both religious liberty and women's health. Those two values should not be in conflict. Republicans leaders and others who have unfairly bashed this administration for being hostile to religion should stop perpetuating that absurd narrative."
Senior administration officials announce "accommodation" on contraception requirements and religious liberty. Religious employers will not have to offer nor pay for contraception services; women will have access to preventive services including contraception through outreach from health insurers.