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White House Shows Signs of Caving on Birth Control Mandate

A private meeting between President Obama and Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Bishops, has resulted in a new proposal to expand the religious exemption from new rules that require health insurance plans to cover contraceptives for women.

The New York Times is reporting that the birth control mandate was a topic of discussion in a meeting earlier this month between the president and Archbishop Dolan. Although few details of the meeting were made public, Dolan did say afterward that Obama was "very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community."

The White House has now announced that it is considering a change in the contentious mandate that would grant a much broader exemption to health plans sponsored by employers who object to such coverage for moral and religious reasons.

The controversy began in August when Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued rules that require all health plans to cover contraceptive drugs and devices as well as sterilization procedures. A bare-bones religious exemption was included for certain "religious employers" but the exemption is so narrow that almost no one qualifies for it. In order for an employer to claim the exemption, they would have to serve only people of its own faith, which excludes most religious-run hospitals, universities and social service agencies.

Calling the new rules "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty," the bishops said, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists.” In addition, they said "the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences.”

The bishops as well as many other faith-based organizations issued a loud public outcry that gained the attention of a president who is worried about his sagging poll numbers and dimming re-election hopes. Recent polls have already shown an erosion of support from the Catholic community of which he won more than a majority in 2008.

But the announcement is not doing much for the president's disgruntled base who is said to be infuriated by the proposal to broaden the exemption. Democratic Senators voiced their concerns in a telephone conference call last Thursday with Pete Rouse, counselor to the president, and House members did the same on Friday with Valerie Jarrett, another member of the president’s inner circle.

The current administration, the most pro-abortion in U.S. history,  is well known for its cozy relationship with major birth control providers such as Planned Parenthood who have considerable financial stakes in the new rules.

But most pro-abortion lawmakers are framing this as a "woman's health" issue rather than a political one.

"It just doesn’t make sense to take this benefit away from millions of women," said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “Americans of all religious faiths overwhelmingly support broad access to birth control.”

Representative Diana DeGette, (D-CO) told the Times the broad exemption was “an outrageous idea.”

“Millions of women work for colleges, hospitals and health care systems that are nominally religious, but these folks use birth control and need coverage,” said Ms. DeGette, a leader of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

The stridently pro-abortion House Democratic Majority leader Nancy Pelosi (R-CA) also expressed disappointment in the Administration's proposal. She described herself as a "devout Catholic" to The Washington Post, saying " . . . I honor my faith and love it . . . but they have this conscience thing [that puts women at risk.]”

Many others see the mandate as an outright attack on religious liberty, such as Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), who said the exemption, as now written, “falls far short of securing the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Only time will tell if Obama is serious about compromising on this issue, or if he is once again just appearing to take a more centrist position in order to quiet critics who are bringing too much negative publicity to his presidency. 

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