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Religious Freedom Violations': These Are the Obama Admin's Contraceptive Mandate 'Concessions


"...the Obama administration is fulfilling its promise that women will have access to birth control coverage..."

As the contraceptive mandate continues to be a topic of conversation in media and on the campaign trail, the Obama administration has been faced with a difficult scenario: either make concessions or risk potential political fallout.

The national conversation surrounding Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke did, to a degree, temporarily relieve some pressure from officials. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church and its supporters have been adamant about the religious freedom violations associated with the mandate. Now, it seems officials have moved, albiet slightly, in a direction faith leaders may find palatable.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services attempted to make a concession, however it is not yet known how churches will react to the proposed changes. Religion News Service explains the plan in the following terms:

At its heart, the newest offering from the White House would allow religious groups -- dioceses, denominations and others -- to decide which affiliated institutions are "religious" and therefore exempt from the new requirement that employers offer free contraception coverage as part of employee insurance plans.

The proposals are an effort by the administration to blunt criticisms of the controversial birth control insurance regulation, especially by the nation’s Catholic bishops, who have been at loggerheads with the White House since President Obama announced the contraception mandate in January.

According to information posted by the government, the changes would expand the number of groups that will be exempt from the president's contraception rule. Additionally, the administration made another intriguing change involving faith groups that self-insure, proposing that third-party companies provide the controversial coverage free of charge (or course nothing in life is truly free). Politico has more about the options that the administration is considering on this front:

An administration official explained during a background call with reporters Friday that the administration is considering three options for self-insured plans:

- Require the companies that self-insured plans hire to manage their employee benefits, called third-party administrators, to cover the cost of these benefits out of revenues not connected with the religiously affiliated employer.

- Cover the cost of the benefit by having the new reinsurance program established by the health care reform law pay rebates to third-party administrators.

- Have a separate insurance company provide the benefit to these employees.

A third portion to the rules addresses student health plans that are offered by universities. In a move that would clearly make Fluke proud, college health care plans will need to follow similar rules in terms of offering contraceptives to students (this will not include self-funded plans).

"Officials at the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor, and the Treasury today took the next step in the Obama administration’s effort to ensure women access to recommended preventive services while respecting religious liberty," reads the statement on the HHS web site.

It continues, "This policy will provide women with access to recommended preventive services including contraceptives without cost sharing, while ensuring that non-profit religious organizations are not forced to pay for, provide, or facilitate the provision of any contraceptive service they object to on religious grounds."

The newest changes come after a Feb. 10 decision -- following intense controversy -- by the Obama administration to change the original mandate to say that insurance companies and not religious employers must provide the contraceptive coverage. This, of course, did little to stem debate.

While a minority of Catholic leaders accepted the changes, Bishops, among others, rejected the notion that the federal government should be forcing employers, via increased premiums, to violate conscience. There was also the issue of how the government would designate which organizations are, indeed, religious in nature. The new, 32-page proposal attempts to tackle these grievances.

Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards was quick to praise these new proposals in a statement issued late last week.

"The proposal released today make clears that the Obama administration is fulfilling its promise that women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays and no additional hurdles, no matter where they work," Richards said on Friday. "Women who buy health insurance from their college or university will have access to affordable birth control, just like women who receive health insurance from their employer."

But even if Catholic leaders do come on board, there are larger issues for the Obama administration to consider. What about business owners who don't own a religiously-affiliated institution, but who still believe that providing contraceptives is morally reprehensible? On Thursday, the first lawsuit of this sort was launched against the federal government. The Hill reports:

The Obama administration’s controversial birth-control mandate saw its first legal challenge Thursday from an employer not affiliated with any religious institution.

The latest challenge comes from the owner of a Missouri-based holding company, who says it violates his religious freedom. Although several other suits have been filed, they have all come from religious-affiliated employers such as Catholic universities.

The conservative American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed the suit on behalf of Frank O’Brien, the owner of O’Brien Industrial Holdings.

The overall issue of government intrusion into the private affairs of businesses will be present in this debate even if all of the religious concerns are dismissed. O'Brien's case is only one of a great many individual grievances that are likely to result from the controversial mandate.

(H/T: Religion News Service)

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