Minnesota religious leaders reacted cautiously to the Obama administration's change of course on the inclusion of birth control in health care plans Friday.

Close to half a dozen religious leaders from Protestant and Jewish faith groups canceled a news conference in support of the mandate Friday so they could listen to the president's speech, said Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, one of the organizers.

The Rev. Doug Donley, pastor at University Baptist Church in Minneapolis said he's encouraged by the administration's action, which he views as supporting women's reproductive rights.

"It's not mandating that people have to buy birth control," Donley said. "Individuals have the right to use birth control or not. The question really is about whether one religious belief system gets to dictate the health care of everybody. I think that's a violation of the First Amendment and freedom of religion."

An opponent of the mandate, Leith Anderson, pastor emeritus at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie who is president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the announcement is a step in the right direction but the changes don't go far enough.

"The good news here is the administration is listening," Anderson said. "A little late, but they're listening. So I think these changes, they're better, but I don't think they're enough.

"I would like to see all government-recognized religious organizations have the right to claim an exemption" to the mandate, he said. "So it wouldn't extend just to religious organizations, because religious beliefs don't end at the institutional door. They continue into everyday life."

Catholic bishops have organized a nationwide protest of the mandate. Jason Adkins, executive director for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in the state, said it is "awaiting the details" and "reserving judgment" but "today's amendments do not seem to be a true reversal of an unwise and unjust policy."

Rose French • 612-673-4352