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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama has announced a plan to accommodate religious employers. The White House is trying to repair relations with Catholics, and others, who are outraged at a new rule governing health insurance for birth control. That policy would have required Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions to cover birth control in their employees' health insurance.

Critics called that an assault on religious freedom. And after angry reaction yesterday, President Obama announced a course correction. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says the new policy, announced yesterday, will preserve women's access to affordable birth control no matter where they work. But it's also designed to address the complaints of Catholic hospitals, universities and similar organizations.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women.

HORSLEY: The administration hopes to achieve this balancing act by having insurance companies provide the coverage directly to employees, effectively taking the Catholic charity out of the loop. Some Catholic bishops aren't satisfied with this approach. One called it a fig leaf, and smoke and mirrors. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says it's reserving judgment, but called the White House move a first step in the right direction.

Other Catholic leaders went further in praising the administration. Sister Carol Keehan, who heads the Catholic Health Association, says she is pleased and grateful for the White House move.

SISTER CAROL KEEHAN: It was a very sincere effort to hear all the voices in this pluralistic country, and try to respond to the needs of everybody and the strongly held convictions of everybody.

HORSLEY: The White House seemed caught off-guard by just how strong those convictions are, especially among progressive Catholics - like Sister Carol, who had been a key administration ally in the push for health-care reform. Political scientist Mark Gray, of Georgetown University, suspects the White House miscalculated the way its original policy would be seen, in part because of research that shows the overwhelming majority of Catholics use birth control.

MARK GRAY: I think there's a big distinction between the average Catholic saying oh, that's my personal choice, and then feeling the sense that the government is somehow telling their church to do something that would violate the teachings and beliefs.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama's missteps on this issue are somewhat surprising. He's written and spoken regularly about the need to respect religious differences in a diverse society, and he's warned that even secular politicians need to take the faithful seriously.

OBAMA: In fact, my first job in Chicago was working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhoods. And my salary was funded by a grant from an arm of the Catholic Church. And I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama called the new policy an effort by people of goodwill to find common ground. But he acknowledged some in Washington may try to use the birth control controversy as, quote, a wedge issue. Even before the original mandate was announced last month, Republican White House candidates were accusing Mr. Obama of waging what they called a war against religion. Here's Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and father of seven, at the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: It's not about contraception. It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your lives - and it's got to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Even as he tried to address Catholic concerns, Mr. Obama also had to worry about preserving support from women, including the young, more secular women who helped to put him in the White House. Organizations that promote family planning were generally supportive of the move announced yesterday. Tim Kaine, who's the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a Catholic, thinks the administration has struck the right balance.

TIM KAINE: Contraception is important, but so is religious liberty. The compromise that they've announced resolves the religious liberty concern in a very straightforward way, and I really applaud the White House for doing it.

HORSLEY: If Kaine's right, the White House may get a little less fire from Catholic pulpits tomorrow - and a little more support from Catholic voters in November.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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