- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2017

The Trump administration said Friday it will let a vast universe of employers duck Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate by claiming a religious or moral objection — a long-awaited move that thrilled pro-life conservatives and appalled Democrats and civil liberties groups, who said they will sue.

Under the final rule, employers who assert a good-faith objection to having their insurance plans pay for contraception will be exempt so long as they notify their employees of the change, the Health and Human Services Department said.

Until now, religiously affiliated charities and family-owned companies had to sign a form saying they didn’t want to provide coverage, triggering a process where someone else would step in and offer coverage for free contraception.

The Health and Human Services Department said colleges, faith-based nonprofits and for-profit companies can now avoid the mandate by claiming a religious or moral objection and without submitting a form. Publicly traded companies must pinpoint a religious objection to claim an exemption.

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more,” said Roger Severino, director of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights.

Yet Democrats said they fear hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women will face higher costs under new carve-outs from the rule, which provides 55 million women with access to no-cost birth control.

“This administration’s contempt for women reaches a new low with this appalling decision to enable employers and health plans to deny women basic coverage for contraception,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

Ms. Pelosi said she expects the changes to be overturned in court, as the American Civil Liberties Union announced the first lawsuit against the new rule.

The ACLU said the rule runs afoul of the Constitution by letting employers use their religious beliefs to interfere with women’s access to contraception. It cited at one Notre Dame University student who could lose her contraceptive coverage because of the changes.

“The Trump Administration is forcing women to pay for their boss’s religious beliefs,” ACLU senior staff attorney Brigitte Amiri said. “We’re filing this lawsuit because the federal government cannot authorize discrimination against women in the name of religion or otherwise.”

The Trump administration argued “99.9 percent” of women will not be affected, citing the relatively limited pool of entities that sued over the rules under President Obama.

Officials said Mr. Trump is keeping his promises to people of faith and trying to clear up years of litigation over the Obama-era rules, although the decision will almost certainly spur lawsuits from the pro-mandate side.

Under Mr. Obama, only houses of worship and certain grandfathered employers were exempted from the mandate. Others must insure a range of contraceptives at no cost to female employees or, in some cases, sign an opt-out form — an accommodation that a Catholic order of nuns and other religious nonprofits challenged as burdensome.

The Obama administration fought the nuns all the way to the Supreme Court — deadlocked justices told both sides to reach a compromise — but the lengthy negotiation fell to Mr. Trump. who promised relief for religious groups.

“For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith,” Mr. Trump said during the May 4 signing of an executive order on religious freedom.

Friday’s decision is Mr. Trump’s latest attempt to dismantle his predecessor’s legacy. Conservatives and pro-life groups are craving a win on health care after congressional Republicans shelved attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood as punishment for its abortion practice.

Devout business owners and religious nonprofits have been waging war against the contraceptive mandate for years.

An outgrowth of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the prior administration said most employers must provide insurance that cover 18 types of FDA-approved contraceptives, including birth control pills or the morning-after pill.

The Catholic Church and some other religions object to some of those contraceptives as sinful, and religious-based charities sued, saying they should be exempt, just as actual houses of worship are.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns dedicated to caring for the elderly, became the most prominent face of objections to the Obama rules. Mr. Trump promised to help them during his May signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

Becket, a religious-freedom group that represented the sisters in court, said it will seek a legal resolution to their lawsuits, since a future administration could undo the rule changes.

It’s unclear how employers, particularly larger corporations, will react to the new rules.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress sounded the alarm, noting more than half of requested exemption from January 2014 to March 2016 were for-profit entities. They said broadening exemptions “enable even more for-profit corporations the ability to make getting birth control more difficult.”

Beyond the ACLU, the National Women’s Law Center also threatened legal action on Friday.

“This will leave countless women without the critical birth control coverage they need to protect their health and economic security,” NWLC President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves said. “We will take immediate legal steps to block these unfair and discriminatory rules.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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