Bishops Reject White House’s New Plan on Contraception

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops have rejected a compromise on birth control coverage that President Obama offered on Friday and said they would continue to fight the president’s plan to find a way for employees of Catholic hospitals, universities and service agencies to receive free contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans, without direct involvement or financing from the institutions.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — which has led the opposition to the plan — said in a statement late Friday that the solution offered by the White House to quell a political furor was “unacceptable and must be corrected” because it still infringed on the religious liberty and conscience of Catholics.

The bishops’ decision to rebuff the compromise means that “religious freedom” will continue to be a rallying cry for some Catholics who have heard it preached from the pulpit for the last three weeks, for evangelical Christians on the religious right, for Republican candidates on the campaign trail and for members of Congress who are supporting a legislative fix on Capitol Hill.

Administration officials said the White House had never expected to get the bishops’ support, given their absolute opposition to contraception, and was surprised when the initial statement of the bishops conference on Friday was noncommittal and went so far as to call the president’s modification a step in the right direction.

Mr. Obama said that the compromise would take the Catholic institutions out of the equation by relieving them from either paying for coverage for contraceptives or providing any referral to their employees for the coverage. Instead, insurance companies would be required to pay for the contraceptives, and to arrange it. The insurers will agree, the White House said, because it is more expensive for them to pay for pregnancies than to pay for contraceptives.

Churches and houses of worship that object to birth control coverage are already exempted. The compromise applies to primarily Catholic institutions, such as hospitals, universities and charities, that employ and serve large numbers of non-Catholics.

The bishops said the plan offered insufficient protection for their institutions: “In the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns.” The Obama administration plans to hold a series of meetings in the coming days and will invite the bishops and other religious leaders to collaborate on developing the new policy, said an administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“I guess we’ll try to treat that constructively,” said Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “But within the meantime we also have to explore other avenues, and there are two other branches of government that may treat our concerns more seriously.”

Already three lawsuits have been filed against the birth control mandate, two by religious colleges and one by a Catholic media outlet.

The bishops will also renew their call for lawmakers to pass the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” which would exempt both insurance providers and purchasers — and not just those who are religiously affiliated — from any mandate to cover items of services that is contrary to either’s “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, all Republicans. It has 36 Republican sponsors and co-sponsors, and one Democratic one — Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

However, the bishops are now facing a potential rift with some of their allies who welcomed the compromise yesterday — including Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals across the country and individual Catholic Democrats and liberals who had helped persuade the administration to make the change.

James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a liberal advocacy group that is organizing support for the Obama administration, said, “The bishops’ blanket opposition appears to serve the interests of a political agenda, not the needs of the American people.”

The bishops had initially called the compromise “a first step in the right direction.” But late Friday they released a second statement saying that the plan raised “a grave moral concern.” Mr. Doerflinger said the reason was that they did not see the rule itself until 7 p.m.; the administration official said, however, that the new rule had not been written yet because the details had not been hashed out, and that the bishops must have read the old rule.

The bishops also were dismayed that the administration did not consult them in crafting the compromise, presenting it to them as a fait accompli.

Mr. Doerflinger said, “We were not part of the negotiation and we were told there wasn’t one by the White House.”

The bishops used the turn of events to renew their objections to the broad requirement that was part of the sweeping health care overhaul passed in 2010 that any employer who has a moral or religious objection — even a small business owner — must offer birth control in their insurance coverage because it is preventive care.

“All the other mandated ‘preventive services’ prevent disease, and pregnancy is not a disease,” the bishops said.

Jackie Calmes, Charlie Savage and Matt Flegenheimer contributed reporting.