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Government issues new rules for churches and birth control coverage

4:07 PM, Jun 28, 2013   |    comments
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By Bob Smietana | The Tennessean

Update:

The American Civil Liberties Union says the Obama administration got it right when it comes to the new rules for religious employers and contraception.

"With this rule, the administration continues to stand by women and our families and refuses to let employers use religion to discriminate," said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel, in a statement.

Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the birth control rules. The new rules also allow for women who work for religious nonprofits to get birth control free of charge. For-profit business are left out of the new rules, which the ACLU applauded.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he would be studying the new rules before giving a response.

The new rules were supposed to take effect Aug. 1, but some nonprofits will get an extension to Jan. 1, 2014.

"We appreciate the extension of the effective date by five months, which is readily apparent in the rule," he said. "The remainder of the rule is long and complex. It will require more careful analysis. We will provide a fuller statement when that analysis is complete."

The Secular Coalition, by contrast, wasted no time in condemning the new rules.

"This disappointing rule change sets a terrible precedent for religious interference in individual choice," said Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, in a statement. "This exemption gives employers the ability to impose their particular religious beliefs on employees, infringing on the religious freedom of potentially millions of Americans."

Previously reported:

Religious nonprofits can opt out of paying for birth control in their health-care plans under new final rules released today by the Obama administration.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most employers must cover contraception for female employees at no cost in their health-care plans.

Churches and other houses of worship are exempt. So are nonprofits that have a religious mission and who hire only people of their own faith.

Other nonprofits, such as schools and hospitals, can opt out of paying for contraception. Under the new rules, those nonprofits can tell their insurance company that they object to contraception. The insurance company will then have to provide birth control at no cost to either the nonprofit or the women they employ.

"The health-care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement. "Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work."

The rules don't affect for-profit businesses that object to paying for birth control. More than 30 business owners have sued the government, saying the contraceptive mandate violates their religious beliefs.

In 21 cases, those companies got injunctions against the requirement, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

This week an appeals court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, the Oklahoma-based chain of big-box craft stores. A lower court had denied its request for an injunction. But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said that Hobby Lobby's owners, the Green Family, had shown that they had suffered harm because the mandate violated their beliefs.

"This is a tremendous victory not only for the Green family and for their business, but also for many other religious business owners who should not have to forfeit their faith to make a living," said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund.

A Becket Fund spokeswoman said that its lawyers are reviewing the new rules.

Contact Bob Smietana at 615-259-8228 or bsmietana@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter@bobsmietana.

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