Religious groups rejected the Obama administration’s latest changes to a mandate requiring employers to insure birth control in their health plans, a sign that legal battles will persist after a pair of Supreme Court decrees thrust religious liberty into the spotlight this summer.
Hoping to tamp down an outcry from religious nonprofit groups, the administration Friday proposed a workaround that lets such universities, hospitals and charities duck Obamacare’s “contraception mandate” by outlining their objections in writing to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Previously, religious nonprofits had to sign a form that cleared the way for insurers or third-party administrators to provide contraceptives at no cost to the employer. Nonprofits may still do this, but many have said the form made them complicit in providing services they object to on moral grounds, such as morning-after pills that they equate with abortion.
Now, HHS and the Labor Department would act as the permission-granters by contacting insurers and administrators to make sure affected employees get services at no cost, without involving the nonprofits.
In a proposal, the administration said for-profit companies should be able to take advantage of the accommodation it extended to nonprofits last year, in which employers sign a waiver to let insurers and administrators handle the coverage on their own.
It is an attempt to keep female employees covered in the wake of the Supreme Court’s “Hobby Lobby” ruling in June, when the justices said closely held corporations did not have to comply with the mandate if it violated owners’ religious beliefs.
The administration requested feedback on how to define a “closely held” for-profit company.
Groups leading the charge against the contraception mandate were not impressed by the changes, so legal challenges from nonprofits may persist and could place the contraception question before the Supreme Court once again.
“Under pressure from hundreds of lawsuits, the government continues to retreat,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “After three losses in the Supreme Court and dozens of losses in courts below, the government continues to confuse the issues. The government issued over 70 pages of regulations, when all it needed to do was read the First Amendment. We’ll be reviewing this latest attempt with each of our clients.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put off detailed comment until it could review the regulations. Yet based on its initial review, “we note with disappointment that the regulations would not broaden the ‘religious employer’ exemption to encompass all employers with sincerely held religious objections to the mandate,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky.
“Instead, the regulations would only modify the ‘accommodation’ under which the mandate still applies and still requires provision of the objectionable coverage,” he added.
Contraception coverage has been a top political issue for weeks, with Democrats parlaying the high court’s decision into its “war on women” narrative and talking points.
On Friday, the administration said it would like Congress to find a permanent way to make sure women affected by the Hobby Lobby decision get the same coverage as others.
“Women across the country deserve access to recommended preventive services that are important to their health, no matter where they work,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said. “Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to providing women with access to coverage for contraception while respecting religious considerations raised by nonprofit organizations and closely held for-profit companies.”