- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Several nonprofit religious groups expressed skepticism Wednesday over the White House’s latest change to Obamacare’s contraception mandate, saying it remains to be seen whether the administration is fully embracing the notion that employers with religious objections should be free from providing employees with free birth control.

The change, announced by administration officials late Tuesday night, would allow nonprofit groups to opt out of the mandate simply by writing a letter to the federal government.

Until now, nonprofit religious groups such as charities and universities had to file paperwork with health insurance companies allowing those companies to offer birth control directly to employees — a form of “permission giving” that some religious objectors view as a form of complicity.

But that approach was condemned by the Supreme Court earlier this month. The high court issued an order saying Wheaton College, a private Christian University, should not be forced to help its employees find access to birth control in any way, shape or form.

The White House now appears to be responding to the high court’s order and the concerns of religious groups with a permanent change in Obamacare regulations.

The move also comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which freed closely held, for-profit companies from providing birth control to employees if they have moral and religious objections.

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But critics say it’s still unclear whether the administration’s latest change to the mandate, which will not be finalized for another month, will suffice, and fears remain that the White House still may try to force employers to facilitate access to contraception, including forms pro-lifers view as abortifacient and to which Hobby Lobby objected.

“If the government just kept us out of the process altogether of either triggering, authorizing, or in any fashion being the gateway for employees to receive coverage for objectionable practices, that would satisfy our concerns,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, a nonprofit, pro-life organization. “Of course, we would have to carefully examine any changes the administration makes to its current policy, in order to verify that what our faith considers immoral cooperation is completely excluded.”

The White House, which has been forced to adjust key parts of Obamacare on multiple occasions, cast the move as a simple tweak in the spirit of compromise.

“In light of the Supreme Court order regarding Wheaton College, the departments intend to augment their regulations to provide an alternative way for objecting nonprofit religious organizations to provide notification, while ensuring that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate coverage of contraceptive services without cost sharing,” a senior White House official said.

“While we are working through the details now, we expect this rulemaking to be issued within a month,” the official said.

If nonprofit employers are no longer involved in the process in any capacity, it appears as if the federal government will bear the responsibility of securing arrangements between workers seeking birth control coverage and their health insurance companies.

“Technically, all they would be asked to do is announce to the world that they have a religious objection. What the government does with that information is beyond their control,” Holly Lynch, an expert on health policy and ethics at Harvard Law School, wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

Despite the supposed compromise, critics still fear the administration isn’t fully embracing religious liberty as it applies to the contraception mandate.

“This is just the latest step in the government’s long retreat on the [contraception] mandate,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “We hope the government will listen to the thousands of voices that called on the government to protect religious liberty. It’s time for the government to stop fighting the 30 federal court orders — including two from the Supreme Court — protecting religious ministries from the mandate.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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