Updated 3:33 p.m. Eastern Time
In what senior administration officials described as an "accommodation" in the wake of an uproar from religious leaders, President Obama announced Friday that the government will not force religiously-affiliated institutions such as schools, charities and hospitals to directly provide birth control coverage as part of their employees' health care coverage.
Female employees of these religiously-affiliated institutions will, however, still have access to no-cost contraceptive coverage. It will come directly from the employee's health insurer, who will be required to offer the coverage for free. Religious organizations will not be required to provide the contraception coverage, subsidize it or refer women to it.
Speaking in the White House briefing room, the president said the decision protects religious liberty while ensuring that "women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work."
The president said that religious liberty is an "unalienable right as enshrined in our Constitution," adding: "As a citizen, and as a Christian, I cherish this right."
A White House official told CBS News that Mr. Obama called Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, who has been critical of the White House position, to tell him about the change.
Mr. Obama said the White House had initially planned to spend the next year before the requirement was implemented to work out solutions to possible objections, but both the "genuine concerns" and "cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football" forced the administration to move more quickly.
The Obama administration announced last month that while churches and other explicitly religious organizations will be exempt from new federal requirements that employers offer health care coverage that includes access to contraception and other preventive services without a copay, religiously-affiliated organizations will not be exempt. The new regulations had been laid out in the federal health care law.
The decision angered many Catholics, including some who are largely supportive of President Obama's policies - among them a handful of Senate Democrats who urged Mr. Obama to reverse course. Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have been deeply critical of the decision, which House Speaker John Boehner called "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom."
At the Conservative Political Action conference on Friday, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the decision is "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."
Planned Parenthood said it supported Friday's announcement.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," said the group's president, Cecile Richards.
The policy change was designed to quell criticism placate Catholic groups and other critics without alienating a liberal base that is broadly supportive of contraceptive coverage.
"Nearly 99 percent of all women have relied on contraception at some
point in their lives -- 99 percent," Mr. Obama said Friday. "And yet more than half of all women between the ages of 18 and 34 have struggled
to afford it."
In a fact sheet accompanying the announcement, the White House suggested that insurance companies will not object to the new requirement because covering contraception saves them money "by keeping women healthy and preventing spending on other health services."
America's Health Insurance Plans, the umbrella group that speaks for insurance companies, issued a cautionary statement in response to the announcement.
"We are concerned about the precedent this proposed rule would set," it said. "As we learn more about how this rule would be operationalized, we will provide comments through the regulatory process."
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a slim majority of Americans - including Catholics - believe that "employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost."
"This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone," Mr. Obama said Friday. "With today's announcement, we've done that. Religious liberty will be protected and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."
"Now, we live in a pluralistic society where we're not going to agree on every single issue or share every belief," he continued. "That doesn't mean that we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness for all Americans. We are unique among nations for having been founded upon both these principles and our obligation as citizens is to carry them forward. I have complete faith that we can do that."