President Barack Obama, in an abrupt policy shift aimed at quelling an election-year firestorm, announced on Friday that religious employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and that the onus would instead be put on insurers.
The compromise sought to accommodate religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, outraged by a new rule that would have required them to offer free contraceptive coverage.
Instead, the new approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all, the White House said.
"Religious organizations won't have to pay for these services," Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room. "But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services."
He insisted the revised policy, which came after he ordered aides to speed up their review of the controversial new rule, would ensure "religious liberty" while protecting women's health.
Weighing in publically on the issue for the first time, Obama acknowledged that religious groups had "genuine concerns" about the birth control rule but he accused some people of a cynical effort to turn the issue into a "political football."
The rule had sparked an outcry from Catholic Church leaders, Republicans and other social conservatives who denounced it as an attack on religious freedom.
The policy shift is aimed at defusing the controversy and preventing it from becoming a liability for Obama's re-election campaign, while at the same time trying not to anger his liberal base. But it was unlikely to assuage all of the concerns of church leaders.
The regulation at the center of the controversy requires religious-affiliated groups such as charities, hospitals and universities, but not churches themselves, to provide employees coverage for birth control as other health insurance providers must do. The Catholic Church opposes most methods of birth control.