After initially signalling optimism about President Barack Obama's decision Friday to amend the religious exemption for mandatory birth-control and sterilization coverage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared total opposition to any compromise on the issue.
The organization wrote that it will continue pushing for a complete end to the birth-control mandate "with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency" than before the Obama administration decided to let nonprofit, church-affiliated employers such as hospitals and universities, and not just churches, technically opt out of the requirement.
"The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for the Department of Health and Human Services to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services," the conference said in a statement released late Friday.
Just hours before, Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who heads the conference, said he saw "initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom" in Obama's action. He also called it "a first step in the right direction."
The bishops' broadside is evidence that Obama's effort to limit the damage from this unusually complicated moral, legal, medical and financial issue isn't necessarily working. Most of the Republican presidential candidates have hammered Obama for what they contend is a trampling of religious freedom.
Even many of the president's supporters believe that the original exemption was too narrow and the policymaking was handled clumsily, although they supported the amendment announced Friday.
An administration official not authorized to speak on the record expressed little surprise at the bishops' statement, which if anything represents a hardening of their position.
"We never anticipated that this announcement would win the endorsement of an organization that opposed health reform from the very beginning," the official said. "But we believe it's the right way to fully address concerns about religious liberty and ensure women get the coverage they need."
The dispute concerns the requirement under the Obama-sponsored 2010 health-care law that certain "preventive services" be included in all health insurance plans, with no out-of-pocket charges to the person insured.
The administration announced in August that contraception and sterilization would be among those services. It also said that churches with a moral objection to pharmacological birth control would not be required to offer that coverage to employees.
Many organizations and experts, Catholic and otherwise, contended that the exemption was not broad enough.
Last month the administration said nonprofit religious-affiliated organizations not offering contraception and sterilization coverage in their health plans would have an extra year, until August 2013, to comply with the mandate.
Critics said the delay did nothing to address the moral objections.
On Friday, Obama announced that nonprofit, church-affiliated entities would be able to opt out in a particular way. They would not have to provide contraception in their health plans, but female employees wanting coverage could obtain it directly from the insurance companies.
The arrangement would not add any cost to the employee's premium, the argument being that prevention of childbirth is cheaper than childbirth.