WASHINGTON – Seeking to quell a politically charged controversy, the Obama administration announced new measures Friday to allow religious nonprofits and some companies to opt out of paying for birth control for female employees, while still ensuring those employees have access to contraception.
Even so, the accommodations may not fully satisfy religious groups who oppose any system that makes them complicit in providing coverage they believe is immoral.
Effective immediately, the U.S. will start allowing faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals to notify the government — rather than their insurers — that they object to birth control on religious grounds. Then the government will instruct a nonprofit's insurer or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control, at no cost to the employer.
In a related move, the administration announced plans to extend an existing accommodation to some for-profit corporations that is currently available only to nonprofits. That measure would be available for "closely held" corporations that are owned by families or a small number of investors, and would transfer responsibility for birth control coverage away from the employer, according to a fact sheet posted on a government web site.
The duel decisions mark the Obama administration's latest effort to address a long-running conflict that has pitted the White House against churches and other religious groups, sparking dozens of legal challenges. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can't force companies like Hobby Lobby Inc. to pay for birth control. Days later, the high court sided with religious nonprofits such as Wheaton College, an evangelical school, which argued that the existing accommodation required them to sign a form that violated their beliefs.
The latest proposals, which were expected to be formally released later Friday, will likely run up against the same objections, because they still enable employees to receive contraception at no extra charge through their health plans — one of a range of preventive services required under President Barack Obama's health care law.
"We will be studying the new rule with our clients, but if today's announcement is just a different way for the government to hijack the health plans of religious ministries, it is unlikely to end the litigation," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented both Hobby Lobby and Wheaton.