President Obama’s approach to contraception coverage was smart as both a matter of policy and politics. (More)

A few weeks ago, the Obama Administration, standing up to strong opposition from conservative religious organizations, finalized rules under the Affordable Care Act to require that contraception be included as a preventive health service that insurance policies must cover with no co-pay. This policy will help millions of women afford access to birth control and also save money by reducing unintended pregnancies. And, in order to mollify concerns of conservative Christian organizations, the Obama Administration provided an exemption for religious institutions when they are solely practicing their religion.

Predictably, conservatives who are opposed to reproductive freedom are outraged by this development. The leadership of the Catholic Church, along with the GOP Presidential candidates, seized on the fact that religious organizations that are operating secular entities would still need to provide no co-pay contraception policies to the employees of the secular entities. Revving up its fake outrage machine, conservatives and their media collaborators portrayed the Obama Administration contraception policy as somehow an attack on religious liberty.

The religious liberty argument rings hollow here. The exemption for religious institutions from the requirement to cover reproductive health services as preventive care when they are solely practicing their religion protected whatever core religious principles are at stake. But once an institution, whether religious or non-religious, enters into the rest of society and, for example, runs a hospital, bookstore, nursing home, or charity where people of other religions (or no religion) are likely to work or be served, that institution can and should follow the same rules and receive the same benefits as everyone else. In the present situation, that means hospitals, etc. that are operated by religious organizations were required to cover preventive services under health insurance plans, just as any other employer would. Otherwise, we would be allowing the religious beliefs of an employer to be used as an excuse to deprive its employees, whether they agree with those beliefs or not, of their rights to health services. If employees of a secular organization run by a religious entity don’t want to use birth control, they don’t have to. But now those employees have a choice to do so just like everyone else in society.

Despite the lack of any actual interference with religious liberty, the fake right wing outrage was predictably picked up by the media and started to spook some on the left. Early last week, the Obama Administration hinted that it would be open to a compromise on the issue, which led conservatives, sensing blood in the water, to increase their feeding frenzy around this issue. Then, on Friday, President Obama announced the compromise:

Under the new policy to be announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works. The policy also ensures that if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge.

In other words, this policy, which is similar to one that has been in effect in Hawaii for at least a few years, ensures that women will have access to contraception as preventive care, while also enabling religious organizations that oppose reproductive rights to avoid directly paying for contraceptive health insurance coverage.

While some have tried to paint this compromise as caving in to conservative pressure, we see it more as a politically astute move by the Obama Administration because, in essence, three things have happened:

* women have been assured free access to contraception and other reproductive health services, just as both men and women are with every other preventive health services

* President Obama has shown himself, once again, to be the only reasonable adult in the room, who is willing to fight for his principles while also working to reasonably compromise on issues

* The GOP has proven yet again that they are out of touch with the American people, by stirring up a tempest in a teapot over an issue on which the American people support the President. 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used contraception, and the majority of Americans, including Catholics, support covering contraception as preventive care.

In other words, the Obama Administration advanced women’s rights, once again demonstrated its reasonableness, and drew the GOP into a battle that shows how out of touch Republicans are with the majority of the American people. Well played, Mr. President.