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.
A previous accommodation offered by the Obama administration allowed those nonprofits to avoid paying for birth control by sending their insurers a document called Form 700, which transfers responsibility for paying for birth control from the employer to the insurer. But Roman Catholic bishops and other religious plaintiffs argued just submitting that form was like signing a permission slip to engage in evil.
In a related move, the administration announced plans to allow for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby Inc. to start using Form 700. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can’t force companies like Hobby Lobby to pay for birth control, sending the administration scrambling for a way to ensure their employees can still get birth control one way or another at no added cost.
The dual 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. The dispute has sparked dozens of legal challenges, fueling an election-year debate about whether religious liberty should trump a woman’s access to health care options.
“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,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
Yet the latest proposals will likely run up against the same objections, because they still enable employees to receive contraception through their health plans – one of a range of preventive services required under President Barack Obama’s health care law.