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The battle over birth control is still going strong. The Obama administration's new rule requiring many religious hospitals and universities to include contraceptives in their insurance plans has drawn fierce criticism.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the stalemate between the White House and the Catholic Bishops shows few signs of easing.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When I reached Richard Doerflinger, he was on Capitol Hill, pushing for legislation that would undo a new rule in the health care law. Doerflinger is the point man on life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He says the rule, which would require religiously affiliated charities, universities, and hospitals to provide coverage for contraceptives, is an affront to religious liberties.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER: This is really the first time that an administration has reached into the life of religious organizations and said, we're going to dragoon you into this, you have to help do this and it doesn't matter what your objections are.

HAGERTY: The White House says it's just trying to provide critical medical services to women. But it's been stunned by the backlash, and one senior campaign official says they're looking for, quote, "a way to move forward that respects the prerogatives of religious institutions." One option that some outside the White House have raised is the law in Hawaii. Under that system, Catholic groups don't have to pay for birth control coverage, but they must tell women how to get it.

Doerflinger is underwhelmed.

DOERFLINGER: Instead if having the Catholic Church or institutions just provide the coverage, you now have them sending people directly to Planned Parenthood down the road. That's not something we find acceptable.

HAGERTY: And why should they, says Father Tom Reese at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. The bishops are winning the public relations battle right now.

FATHER TOM REESE: They're getting support from progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics. So the bishops are on a roll.

HAGERTY: They're under no pressure to compromise, he says, particularly since they have a year before the rule takes effect. And who knows, there might be another president by then.

This fight, Reese says, is all about framing. Polls show that most people, including Catholics, want access to birth control and favor the administration's mandate. But Reese says they also bristle at government pushing a religious entity to violate its beliefs.

REESE: If the argument is over religious liberty, the bishops win. If the argument is over contraceptives, the administration wins.

HAGERTY: And right now, he says, the bishops are doing a better job.

Lost in this debate is the fact that many Catholic institutions are already offering birth control coverage because of state laws.

JUDY WAXMAN: Georgetown University covers contraceptives for employees, Marquette, Seattle...

HAGERTY: Judy Waxman is vice president of the National Women's Law Center.

WAXMAN: ...University of Dayton, University of San Diego, for a few.

HAGERTY: There's Catholic Charities in New Jersey and virtually all Catholic hospitals in New York and California.

WAXMAN: Doesn't sound like the sky has fallen in to me.

HAGERTY: True, no one's turning away patients, says Sister Carol Keehan. She's president of Catholic Health Association, which oversees more than 600 Catholic hospitals. And she says, the vast majority of Catholic women do use birth control and want coverage. But the federal mandate violates a larger principle.

SISTER CAROL KEEHAN: It is not the issue per se of contraception, it is the issue of the government saying you have to buy this or you have to buy that, even if you have a longstanding religious objection to it.

HAGERTY: Keehan believes the administration, in its effort to provide a valuable service to women, just lost sight of the First Amendment.

KEEHAN: We think this was just a bad call. It needs to be fixed, and that's what we're working in dialogue to get accomplished.

HAGERTY: Maybe, maybe not, says Richard Doerflinger at the Bishops Conference. He says the president had led them to believe he would accommodate them.

DOERFLINGER: And when the rule came out, he had not. So, we're beginning to realize that those conversations have been of very limited use.

HAGERTY: Whatever was said in the Oval Office, one thing is clear: The bishops are in no mood to compromise.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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