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White House defends birth control rule against religious protest

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Tuesday defended a new federal rule requiring religiously affiliated nonprofit groups to provide free birth control coverage to women, as opponents ratcheted up pressure to alter the provision.

The decision, announced on January 20 by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has spurred angry opposition from social conservatives. Roman Catholic officials are mulling a possible legal or legislative challenge.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican seen as a possible vice presidential candidate in this year's election campaign, introduced legislation late on Monday that would prevent the government from requiring contraceptive coverage if it violated the religious beliefs of the sponsoring individuals or entities.

"While there are those who take issue with the decision, millions and millions of Americans -- American women will have access to preventive services, as they should," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

"The president concurs in the decision," he added.

The new federal rule exempts places of worship such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.

But under the authority of President Barack Obama's 2010 healthcare law, the government will require religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and charities to provide free coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptives by August 2013, including the morning after pill and sterilization.

The overarching policy won wide praise from family planning and women's organizations. It had been recommended to the Obama administration by scientists at the influential Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit agency that advises U.S. policymakers.

U.S. officials, saying the change would reduce abortions, unwanted pregnancies and reduce healthcare costs, sought to strike a balance by giving religious groups an extra year to adapt to the change.

But the gesture did nothing to stem the ire of Catholic authorities, who regard contraception as a sin and the new rule as a violation of religious freedom. During weekend religious services, Catholic bishops and priests across the country read out letters protesting the rule.

The rule has also been assailed by Republican candidates on the presidential campaign trail, including Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who are both Catholic.

It is unclear how strong the opposition is likely to be among rank-and-file parishioners, particularly Catholic women. A study published by the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods banned by the church.

Catholic organizations had no immediate response to Rubio's bill, titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, which he introduced on the eve of Tuesday's Florida Republican primary.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Cynthia Osterman)

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