The Obama administration has announced changes to a health care mandate that would allow religious organizations to opt out of contraceptive coverage.
The original mandate on providing contraception was part of the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama, requiring insurers to provide FDA-approved contraception at no cost.
The mandate has led to 44 lawsuits with more than 130 plaintiffs representing hospitals, schools, businesses and other religious groups.
In earlier versions of the mandate, exemptions were only extended to churches and related groups like denominations. The new rules use the IRS definition of a church, available to a nonprofit that “holds itself out as a religious organization.”
Under Friday’s proposed rule, religious organizations would inform their insurer of their exemption, and the insurer would inform employees that the insurer would provide them with free contraceptive coverage through a separate insurance policy.
In response to critics who said insurance companies would simply raise the cost of premiums, the Department of Health and Human Services said health insurance companies will be required to certify to religious groups that contraception will not be included in their policies.
"Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a press statement. "We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."
Some women's groups praised the announcement.
"Today's draft regulation affirms yet again the Obama administration's commitment to fulfilling the full promise of its historic contraception policy," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL. "Thanks to this commitment, most American women will get birth control coverage without extra expense."
The new exemptions do not apply to for-profit companies or to nonprofits that are not explicitly religious. It remains unclear what the policy will mean for family-owned for-profit corporations, such as Hobby Lobby, owned by an evangelical family, or for-profit Bible publisher Tyndale House.
In December, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Hobby Lobby’s request for an injunction against the mandate. Hobby Lobby’s appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed.
“Today's proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group representing seven organizations suing the government. "The rights of family businesses like Hobby Lobby are still being violated.”
A D.C. Circuit of Appeals ruled in December in favor of evangelical schools Wheaton College and Biola University.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops will comment in more details later. "Today, the administration issued proposed regulations regarding the HHS mandate" he said in a statement. "We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later."
The proposed updates to the law will be open for public comment through April 8.