PRESIDENT Barack Obama retreated yesterday from a culture war with America's Christian Right, agreeing to amend his healthcare system so Roman Catholic organisations do not have to buy the morning-after pill for employees.
Amid claims from Rick Santorum, the conservative Republican presidential hopeful, that he was leading the country down a path ending in "the guillotine" for persecuted Christians, the president agreed to allow religious groups to omit contraception from staff health insurance packages.
"Religious liberty will be protected," Mr Obama said. But he insisted: "No woman's health should depend on who she is, or where she works, or what her health is or how much money she makes."
Under the adjusted scheme, health insurance companies will be forced to provide contraception free of charge to women who work for religious schools, hospitals or charities which object to doing so as part of employees' health cover. Churches were always exempt.
The US Catholic Health Association welcomed Mr Obama's about-turn, stating that it "responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed".
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose president Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, led the protests against the original scheme, initially remained silent.
What a White House aide called Mr Obama's "accommodation" came after pressure mounted on the president for more than a week.
Dozens of Catholic bishops sharply condemned the rule in sermons across the US, and Republican leaders pledged to place the issue at the heart of the campaign for November's elections.
It had threatened to severely damage Mr Obama's support among Catholic voters, a group he won by 54 per cent to 45 per cent over his Republican rival John McCain in 2008.
Aides claimed yesterday that he had always been anxious to avoid upsetting religious activists.
"This is very personal to the president," a White House official said.
"He understands deeply how important it is the work the faith-based organisations do. He's always been committed to both preserving religious liberty and protecting women's health."
Mr Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, yesterday attacked Mr Obama for forcing Catholics to fund things that were "against their basic tenets".
The evangelical favourite, who is again surging into the lead of national opinion polls, spoke to CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives in Washington. "Obamacare is a game-changer for America," he said. "But this is not about contraception. It is about government control of your lives, and it has got to stop."
"Once people have that dependency they are never really free again."
In a swipe at Mitt Romney, the moderate who has led opinion polls throughout the campaign for the nomination, Mr Santorum promised activists: "We will not abandon the principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November." (© Daily Telegraph, London)