U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the White House in Washington Feb. 10 about the federal mandate on contraceptive coverage. Standing next to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the White House in Washington Feb. 10 about the federal mandate on contraceptive coverage. Standing next to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
President Obama on Friday morning offered a compromise in the religious liberty debate.

Under the president's proposal, religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and charities will not be compelled to offer employees health coverage contrary to conscience. Instead, insurance companies must offer the coverage free to employees who work at the institutions and seek benefits like abortion-causing drugs, other contraceptives and sterilization.

Church organizations will not be required to inform employees that they can ask insurers for the coverage.  

"No women's health should depend on who she is, who she works for or how much money she makes," Obama said. He said the new policy remains faithful to the "core principle" of free preventive care, but also honors the principle of religious freedom, which "as a Christian, I cherish."

The president reminded listeners that he admired the work he witnessed at Catholic parishes when he worked as a Chicago organizer. Saying the last few weeks have included both genuinely expressed concern and cynical statements from those seeking to score political points, he reported that he sped up the process of creating a compromise.

The nation's bishops are studying the proposal, calling it a step in the right direction but expressing abiding concern.

“While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops. “The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals.”

Cardinal-designate Dolan said he hopes to work with the administration "to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations.”

The Catholic Health Association welcomed the plan with a statement that said "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."

But U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a Catholic who has co-chaired the bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus since 1982, said the policy announced by Obama "is the discredited old policy, dressed up to look like something else."

He said the requirement that insurance companies provide contraception and sterilization free of charge to all employees of religious organizations would still place the cost ultimately on the religious employers. "Who pays for the insurance policy?" he asked. "The religious employer."

The Obama administration and the Department of Health and Human Services prompted an imbroglio when they announced that the religiously-linked institutions would not be exempt from paying for a new health care mandate that requires free preventive care for employees, including the offerings objectionable to Catholics.  

Catholic leaders and like-minded Americans — even those who otherwise support the president — argued that it's always wrong to force church institutions to pay for employee health coverage that violates faith tenets.  

Religious institutions that employ and serve mostly people of their own faith, like many parishes, were not affected by the dispute — those employees cannot obtain the free coverage.

But those who work at Providence Health and Services, the University of Portland and even Catholic churches with majority non-Catholic workers will be eligible under the compromise.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had argued that it's a misunderstanding that HHS does not deem Catholic colleges, hospitals and agencies as religious employers worthy of conscience protection like parishes. The bishops explain that such institutions are the way the church fulfills its religious mission of serving the common good. The government should encourage, not punish, such purposes, say the bishops. But the government wanted to get the benefits to the many non-Catholics who work at such institutions.

“The place we are being put in is, either we violate our conscience or we stop offering health care (coverage)," Archdiocese of Portland chancellor Mary Jo Tully told KGW news before the compromise was announced.

“If something is intrinsically evil, we are going to do everything that we can to keep it from happening," Tully said.