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Religion | After weeks of pressure, President Obama tells insurers to pay for contraceptives, leaving religious leaders with more questions than answers

WASHINGTON-President Obama sought to calm a storm of criticism over his administration's contraceptive mandate Friday, but few religious leaders were soothed.

"Religious liberty will be protected," the president insisted at the White House Friday, as he announced changes to his administration's contraceptive mandate, with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius standing behind him.

Since Sebelius announced on Jan. 20 that all religious groups-except for churches-must pay for contraceptives for their employees, including abortifacients like Plan B and Ella, the administration has felt immense blowback from Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant groups, as well as prominent members of the Democratic Party who saw the mandate as a violation of religious freedom. Now the administration plans to shift the cost of contraceptives from employers to insurance companies: The insurers will be required to provide contraceptives to employees of religious organizations for free.

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Under the new, new rules, churches are still completely exempt from providing contraceptives to their employees. Other religious groups' employees can receive free contraceptives, but the groups will not have to provide any references to employees about how to get the contraceptives, which was a concern of a number of groups. The insurance companies will be required to "reach out directly" to women employees, White House officials said. Like before, the new policy will go into effect for most religious groups in August 2013.

Many of the concerned religious groups were skeptical that the administration's new position solved the religious freedom problem.

"This is a real minimal effort to quell the firestorm," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, the head of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, who has long been involved in talks with the White House over the issue. According to Carlson-Thies, the administration's overall goal remains the same: "Spread contraceptives as a basic right, like tap water."

The lack of details is what has many religious leaders concerned. Who now falls into this religious category? (Obama only mentioned charities and religious hospitals.) What happens to faith-based health insurance that explicitly doesn't provide contraceptives?

And some wonder about the problem of fungibility: How can employers avoid paying for contraceptives if the insurance company is rolling the cost into their premiums? The White House explained in a fact sheet that "religious organizations will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception."

"The insurance company is going to pick it up out of the goodness of their heart?" said Carlson-Thies. "The money is not going to be made out of nothing."

Senior administration officials explained that the mandate is "cost neutral" because providing contraceptives is much cheaper for insurance companies than paying for pregnancies. Carlson-Thies said that argument is "meaningless." "Of course it's going to cost somebody something," he said. "The question is where does it come from. It has to come from premiums. … I just don't see a way around it."

Carlson-Thies added, "We have to keep pushing for clarity and look for details. Everything has to be tentative until the details are worked out. This is a story about details."

Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson, who slammed the original mandate, said the announcement "raises more questions than it answers."

"To date, this administration has shown an incredible insensitivity to the First Amendment and the free exercise of religion, which means Christians must remain vigilant," he said. "Show me how we can know that the administration won't restore its original plan after the November elections."

Colson said Congress should pass legislation to ultimately settle the matter. Congressional Republicans, who have started pushing legislation to overturn the contraceptive mandate, seemed ready to continue with that plan.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tweeted, "Pres O just invented 'free lunch' to solve his interfence w Catholics&contraceptives He is trying pull wool ovr eyes of Bishops Forget it O."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House pro-life caucus, stated, "Only the most naive or gullible would accept this as a change in policy. … Who pays for the insurance policy? The religious employer." Smith called the announcement "political manipulation."

Some of the original liberal critics of the mandate applauded the president's decision. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who headed the Democratic National Committee until last year, gave the new rule a thumbs-up after criticizing it earlier.

Another critic, Sister Carol Keehan from the Catholic Health Association, commended the decision, which White House officials mentioned repeatedly. The group had supported healthcare reform under criticism from other Catholic groups, so its critique of the administration gained intense attention.

Planned Parenthood also endorsed the decision.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed three lawsuits against the administration over the mandate, called the announcement a "false compromise." "It is especially telling that the details of this supposed 'compromise' will likely not be announced until after the election," stated Hannah Smith, the lawyer working on the lawsuits.

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