WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled Thursday to contain a growing election-year outcry over its decision that church-affiliated employers must cover birth control regardless of their religious principles.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, called the requirement unconstitutional while White House spokesman Jay Carney said it is part of a reasoned policy to promote women's health and does not encourage abortion.
Under President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, most employers and insurance plans will have to cover birth control free of charge as preventive care for women. Churches and houses of worship do not have to follow that requirement, but administration officials recently announced that many religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, colleges and charities must comply after a year's phase-in period.
The wave of protest that followed has clearly taken the White House by surprise. Catholic and Protestant evangelical leaders criticized the decision as infringing on freedom of religion. Some religious liberals have called it politically risky for Obama in a close election year.
"I think this mandate violates our Constitution," Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. "I think it violates the rights of these religious organizations. And I would hope that the administration would back up and take another look at this."
White House spokesman Carney said the decision will stand.
That's unlikely to silence critics. Also joining in disapproval was a group that includes Democratic lawmakers who helped engineer final passage of the health care law. The group, Democrats for Life of America, represents anti-abortion lawmakers who provided the margin of victory in Congress.
"Forcing religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for services that are directly in opposition to their moral beliefs is very clearly wrong," said Kristen Day, its executive director.
The White House defended the decision. Spokesman Carney said the president has no intention of trespassing on religious liberty.
"There was extensive and careful consideration as this policy was developed and a decision was made. And the issue here is we want to be sure women, all women, have access to good health care," he said.
Asked if there's a debate within the administration about reconsidering, Carney responded:
"No, there's not a debate ... the decision has been made, and it was made after careful consideration."
At issue is a provision of the health care law that requires insurance plans to cover preventive care for women free of charge to the employee. Last year, an advisory panel from the respected Institute of Medicine recommended including birth control on the list, partly because it promotes maternal and child health by allowing women to space their pregnancies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius agreed, issuing a new federal regulation last summer.
That rule, however, exempted houses of worship and their employees, as well as other institutions whose primary purpose is to promote religious belief. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places would not be required to cover contraceptives, it specified. Neither would religious organizations whose purpose is to promote belief, and that primarily employ and serve people of the same creed.
It was a different story for religious-affiliated hospitals, colleges and social agencies that serve the public broadly.
Although many of those employers had not traditionally covered birth control, the new regulation will require them to do so.
For religious-affiliated employers, the requirement will take effect August 1, 2013, and their workers in most cases will have access to coverage starting January 1, 2014.
Women working for secular enterprises from profit-making companies to government will have access to the new coverage starting January 1, 2013, in most cases.
Workplace health plans will have to cover all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration, ranging from the pill to implantable devices to sterilization. Also covered is the morning-after pill, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex and is considered as tantamount to an abortion drug by some religious conservatives.
There is no mandate, however, to cover abortions.
Last Sunday, Catholic bishops in more than 140 dioceses issued statements denouncing the decision that were read at each weekend Mass.
The head of the Catholic Health Association, a hospital trade group that supported Obama's health care law, said she was "stunned" by the administration's decision.
"It's not the issue of contraception, but religious freedom," said Sister Carol Keehan. "It's not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further."
An AP-GfK poll from December found that Catholics supported Obama by 49 percent to 45 percent in a matchup with Republican front runner Mitch Romney. But among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, Romney had the edge by 45 percent to 52 percent.
Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Rachel Zoll, Jennifer Agiesta and Erica Werner contributed to this report.