US gives church groups a year on birth control rule

by Reuters
Friday, 20 January 2012 22:15 GMT

* Religious groups sought broader exemptions

* Decision part of Obama's healthcare overhaul (Adds religious groups' responses, updates throughout)

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Friday insisted that religiously affiliated nonprofit groups including charities, hospitals and universities offer birth-control coverage to women employees, but gave the organizations an extra year to adapt to the change.

The news stirred anger and disappointment among religious authorities including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which condemned the election-year move as a violation of religious conscience and the constitutional right to religious freedom.

Birth control advocates including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America applauded the decision.

The Department of Health and Human Services made final a proposal it first aired last August, requiring most employer-sponsored health plans to offer women contraceptive services including sterilization without copays, co-insurance or deductibles.

The government's decision does not apply to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and some religiously affiliated elementary and secondary schools, which remain exempt.

But it came as a blow to religious officials who pushed hard for a broader exemption that would have included religious organizations whose main purpose is not to provide religious services for their members.

The Obama administration said it sought to meet those concerns by allowing religious groups an extra year to adjust.

"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

"This proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."

The change is intended to reduce health costs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions, as part of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul. The 2010 reform law, his signature domestic policy achievement, is facing unprecedented challenges in the Supreme Court and from Republicans this year as the president seeks re-election.

"This common sense decision means that millions of women, who would otherwise pay $15 to $50 a month, will have access to affordable birth control, helping them save hundreds of dollars each year," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said in a statement.

"LINE IN THE SAND"

The strongest criticism came from the Roman Catholic Church, which holds contraception to be a sin.

"The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand," Roman Catholic Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the bishops conference, said in a statement vowing to overturn the rule.

"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences," he added.

The National Association of Evangelicals, a Protestant group, warned the move could lead to further erosion of traditional American protections against the violation of conscience.

Health and Human Services officials said the administration decided to offer a grace period after reviewing more than 200,000 comments on the proposed rule since last August, including comments from religious organizations that said they would need time to make the transition.

Religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations, many of which currently do not offer birth control coverage, have until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new rule. Other employers must begin covering the services from August 1, 2012. (Editing by Xavier Briand)

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