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White House defends birth control coverage policy as conservatives push back

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Amid strong pushback from the Catholic church and conservatives, the Obama administration on Tuesday defended its decision to require most religiously-affiliated employers cover the cost of birth control in their health insurance plans.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters today that the policy decision was made after "very careful consideration" of the concerns of religious groups. President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius believe the policy "strikes the appropriate balance" between protecting religious freedoms and providing women with access to preventive health services, Carney said.

"I think it's fair to say that while there are those who take issue with the decision, millions of American women will have access to preventive services, as they should, appropriately, through the health care reform bill," Carney said.

The HHS announced earlier this month that all employers would be required to provide full coverage for a range of preventive health services for women, including the cost of contraception. The rule exempts houses of worship like churches or synagogues, but other nonprofits with religious affiliations -- for instance, like a Catholic university -- will have to comply. Most employers will have until August 1, 2012 to meet the rule, but religiously-affiliated nonprofits will have an extra year.

Catholics hear anti-Obama letter in church
HHS gives religious groups more time to comply with birth control coverage rule

The move has infuriated the Catholic church and prompted church leaders to attack the Obama administration during services on Sunday. Across the country on Sunday, Catholics attending Mass were read a blistering letter assailing the Obama administration for an "assault on religious liberty."

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill, named the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012," to repeal the policy.

"The Obama Administration's obsession with forcing mandates on the American people has now reached a new low by violating the conscience rights and religious liberties of our people," Rubio said in a statement.

Like Rubio, the Republican presidential candidates have criticized Mr. Obama for the policy decision. In an appearance on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Newt Gingrich called it "an attack on Christianity." Rick Santorum also assailed the decision while on the campaign trail in Colorado Tuesday.

Carney today emphasized that the Obama administration strongly supports "conscience protections" for workers who object to facilitating certain medical procedures on moral or religious grounds. He added that the administration is working closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.

Supporters of the policy decision say that full coverage of birth control costs is one of the most popular parts of Mr. Obama's health care reform package. A 2010 Hart Research poll commissioned by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund showed that 71 percent of American voters, including 77 percent of Catholic women voters, support having health plans cover prescription birth control at no cost.

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