WASHINGTON — The White House today signaled that it may be prepared to “accommodate” the concerns of religious leaders who have strongly opposed a new federal rule requiring that private insurers provide contraception coverage.

In a sign that the escalating battle between the administration and the U.S. bishops has inflicted significant political damage on a president who faces an uphill battle for re-election this year, President Obama reportedly is prepared to make an “accommodation, not a compromise.”

ABC News reported this morning that the president is likely to offer a proposed accommodation described as “Hawaii-lite,” a reference to a state bill in that has been floated as a reasonable compromise to address church concerns.

“The move, based on state models, will almost certainly not satisfy bishops and other religious leaders, since it will preserve the goal of women employees having their birth control fully covered by health insurance,” according to the ABC report.

“Sources say it will be respectful of religious beliefs but will not back off from that goal, which many religious leaders oppose, since birth control is in violation of their religious beliefs.

“One source familiar with the decision described the accommodation as ‘Hawaii-plus,’ insisting that it’s better than the Hawaii plan — for both sides.

“In Hawaii the employer is responsible for referring employees to places where they can obtain the contraception; Catholic leaders call that material cooperation with evil.”

In what is now being presented as an modification of the Hawaii bill’s language, the ABC report suggested that while the Hawaii rule requires church-affiliated health plans to provide referrals for services they deem morally illicit, the new White House plan will remove the religious employer from playing any role as facilitator.

“The insurance company will reach out on its own to the women employees. This is better for both sides, the source says, since the religious organizations do not have to deal with medical care to which they object, and women employees will not have to be dependent upon an organization strongly opposed to that care in order to obtain it,” stated the ABC report.

The administration has not spelled out its effort to accommodate churches’ concerns, so legal scholars and church officials will hold back until the actual accommodation is clarified.

However, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops previously dismissed the Hawaii law as a poor compromise that would do little to accommodate the concerns of church-affiliated institutions.

Noting the actual Hawaii bill’s requirement that religious employees provide referrals for morally objectionable services, Richard Doerflinger, the U.S. bishops’ conference’s chief lobbyist on life issues, signaled that the conference was unlikely to accept this kind of compromise.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has argued that the Hawaii bill is no compromise and may be unconstitutional.

Yuval Levin, a bioethicist at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, issued a critique of what he believes will be the president’s plan –though the details of the “accommodation” has not yet been released.  Levin issued this judgment on the National Review website this morning:

“If I understand the White House announcement correctly, their newly proposed rule would not actually change the moral circumstances at issue in any way.

“It puts religious employers in the position of having to choose between providing their workers with free (to the workers) access to contraceptives and abortifacient drugs or not providing those workers with health insurance at all (and also paying a large fine). The only difference is that the access to those contraceptive and abortifacient drugs would not technically be listed as one of the benefits the employer was paying for directly but would be listed as a benefit the insurer was paying for (with the money the employer paid for the broader insurance policy, of course). But employers who offer insurance don’t pay for individual benefits and products when they are provided anyway, they pay for the policy that gives their workers access to those benefits and products when they want them.
Levin concludes, “What ground is the administration giving in this compromise? And how is it any less a violation of religious liberty?”

News reports have confirmed that the president will spell out this new “accommodation” this afternoon.