President Barack Obama announced a compromise Friday in the dispute over whether to require full contraception insurance coverage for female employees at religiously affiliated institutions.
Under the new plan, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals will not be forced to offer contraception coverage to their employees. Insurers will be required, however, to offer complete coverage free of charge to any women who work at such institutions.
Female employees at churches themselves will have no guarantee of any contraception coverage -- a continuation of current law.
There will be a one-year transition period for religious organizations after the policy formally takes effect on August 1.
"No woman's health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes." Obama said at the White House. But "the principle of religious liberty" is also at stake. "As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right."
The president briefed New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on the decision Friday morning. He also discussed the decision with Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association and Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood.
News of the compromise comes after days of escalating partisan and ideological rhetoric over the divisive issue. The White House originally wanted to require hospitals and schools with religious ties to offer full contraception coverage. Many Catholic leaders and other religious groups strongly oppose any requirement for contraception coverage on theological grounds.
The question of whether institutions with religious ties should be required to offer insurance plans covering birth control and the so-called morning after pill, among other things, hits a number of political hot buttons. Liberal groups have pushed for an expansive contraception coverage requirement on grounds of gender equality in health care. Conservatives generally consider it a violation of the First Amendment and an infringement on religious liberty.
Some political analysts believe the controversy could cost Obama votes in politically critical states like Pennsylvania and Ohio in November, while others insisted it will ultimately hurt Republicans with suburban women.
Initial reaction to Friday's decision was mixed. More liberal leaders appeared to embrace the compromise, while more conservative leaders expressed deep skepticism.
"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work," Planned Parenthood's Richards said.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Richards added.
A Democratic congressional source told CNN the deal appeared to address the major concern numerous House Democrats members had that the initial rule would have forced the Catholic Church to do something that conflicted with its core beliefs.
But conservative Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, insisted the revised rule still violates the Constitution.
"This ObamaCare rule still tramples on Americans' First Amendment right to freedom of religion," Jordan said in a written statement. "It's a fig leaf, not a compromise. Whether they are affiliated with a church or not, employers will still be forced to pay an insurance company for coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs."
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski called the compromise "too little, too late."
Published polls show a slight majority of U.S. Catholics actually favor the original full requirement.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday the existence of a deep internal administration split on the matter, with Vice President Joe Biden and former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley warning Obama about the possibility of negative political repercussions in swing states. Several female aides -- including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- urged the president to move forward with the rule, Bloomberg said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney denied the report, though he declined to offer any details.
"A lot of these accounts are overdramatized," a senior administration official said Friday.
Sources familiar with White House thinking said the administration is convinced approval from conservative Catholics is out of reach and is now trying to win over progressive Catholics.
Meanwhile, on the presidential campaign trail, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney pledged earlier to eliminate the original version of the rule on his first day in office.
Both the White House and Romney's Republican opponents, however, have noted a Massachusetts law in effect while Romney was governor, that required hospitals -- including Catholic ones -- to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.
It's ironic for Romney to criticize "the president for pursuing a policy that is virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts," Carney said Wednesday.
Romney, in turn, said Carney needs to "check his history."
In 2005 then-Gov. Romney vetoed a bill that would have required all hospitals -- including Catholic hospitals -- to provide emergency contraception. The heavily Democratic state legislature overrode his veto.
According to news reports at the time, Romney initially said his administration would not enforce the law at Catholic hospitals. But he later reversed course, saying all hospitals would have to supply the morning-after pill.
Romney was quoted at the time as saying, "My personal view in my heart of hearts is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information."
"I worked very hard to get the legislature to remove all of the mandated coverages, including contraception," Romney told reporters Wednesday. This "was a provision that got there before I did, and it was one that I fought to remove."
Romney's campaign released a statement from former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon on Thursday defending Romney's past stance on the issue.
"The charge that Mitt Romney has not stood tall to defend freedom of religion is preposterous," Glendon said. "He has shown backbone on every critical issue at every juncture when it counted."