White House expands exemptions from contraception mandate

(RNS) The Obama administration on Friday unveiled new rules on its birth control mandate that broaden religious exemptions and give greater flexibility to faith-based organizations that have moral objections to providing contraception insurance.

The proposals do not, however, offer relief to privately owned businesses that make conscience claims.

The latest accommodation was a long-awaited effort to defuse a dispute that has soured relations between the White House and the Catholic bishops and conservative Christian groups. There were mixed signals on Friday about whether the administration has shifted the debate to its advantage.

Many of the administration’s longstanding opponents dismissed the new proposals, issued by the Health and Human Services Department, as meaningless.

Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented a range of religious institutions and business owners in court challenges to the mandate, called the proposed changes “radically inadequate” and “extremely disappointing.”

“The administration’s narrow gesture does nothing to protect many faith-based employers or religious families from the unconstitutional abortion pill mandate,” said Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom. ”The government has no business putting religious freedom on the negotiating table, or picking and choosing who is allowed to exercise faith.”

“The only acceptable outcome is the complete repeal of the HHS mandate and the restoration of a thriving marketplace where Americans can choose health care coverage consistent with their beliefs,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List President, a leading anti-abortion group.

Other foes of the birth control mandate appeared to view Friday’s proposals as potential resolution, or at least a way forward – an indication that the administration’s concessions may split the opposition.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely” and said the hierarchy would provide a more detailed reaction later. Speaking privately, church sources close to the bishops said they were “optimistic” that the new rules signaled a path out of what had appeared to be a dead-end argument.

Even William Donohue, head of the Catholic League and a vocal opponent of the White House’s policies, welcomed the birth control proposals and as “eminently good sense” and called them “a sign of goodwill by the Obama administration toward the Catholic community.”

“The rules proposed today by HHS appear to go a long way toward rectifying the most problematic provisions of the mandate,” Donohue said. “Essentially, the rules provide insularity for Catholic institutions: they will not be directly involved in providing health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.”

The new HHS rules seek to address religious freedom concerns in two ways: first, they broaden the definition of “religious employers” so that all houses of worship and dioceses and affiliated organizations will be clearly exempt; second, for other faith-based employers, the rules would transfer all the costs and administrative tasks of the birth control insurance policies to the insurance companies themselves rather than the employers.

That approach could effectively refocus complaints from threats to the religious freedom of houses of worship and faith-based institutions – such as Catholic hospitals and universities – to claims that for-profit businesses should be exempt from providing insurance policies that they find morally objectionable.

“By taking care of religious employers the administration has strengthened its position in the court of public opinion and in the court of law,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at Georgetown University. “Few people, including judges, care about the so-called religious liberty of for profit corporations.”

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