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Pope Meets Privately With Religious Order Suing Obama Administration

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WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP) —Wednesday was a jammed packed day for Pope Francis, and by nightfall his meetings still weren't over.

The pope had a private meeting Wednesday night with the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is suing the Obama administration over a requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers provide health insurance that covers birth control.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, says the pope made the visit between his public events. The visit is a signal of the pope's support for the religious order, which argues that the requirement violates their religious freedom.

The order runs several homes in the U.S. that care for elderly people who are poor.

The Obama administration has provided an accommodation for religious objectors, allowing them to send notice of their opposition, which would trigger a requirement for insurers to provide the coverage instead. But attorneys for the religious order say the accommodation isn't broad enough and still requires the sisters to cooperate with providing artificial contraception.

Earlier Wednesday, the pope called religious freedom "one of America's most precious possessions" and said Americans are called to "preserve and defend" it.

Securing conscience exemptions from the birth control requirement is a top priority for the U.S. bishops. Dozens of American dioceses, charities and schools have sued the Obama administration over the rule. The issue is expected to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Vatican also released a statement on the U.S. embargo on Cuba – one of the main issues discussed by the U.S. and Holy See delegations on the sidelines of Pope Francis' meeting with President Barack Obama.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, declined to provide details on the private meeting between Francis and Obama.

But he said the diplomatic delegations headed by Vice President Joseph Biden and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, discussed the Cuban embargo and the Holy See's longstanding opposition to it.

Lombardi said "there was a certain readiness to understand from the USA side how it is possible to go on to solve the different problems" about lifting the blockade.

Francis has said he would not mention the embargo in his speech Thursday to Congress, which has the power to lift the blockade.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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