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Obama Administration Offers Religious Employers Broader Exemption on Contraception Coverage

February 1, 2013, 2:09 pm | Posted by John Gehring

The announcement today from the Obama administration that it is granting a more robust accommodation for religious institutions who object to providing contraception coverage is a sensible move. The values of protecting women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers should not be in conflict.

The provision that nearly all employers must provide contraceptive services under the federal health care reform law has sparked a long, messy fight between the Obama administration, Catholic bishops and some conservative evangelicals. This fight is far from over. A dozen separate legal challenges to the administration’s mandate are now winding through the courts. Because judges have reached different conclusions, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final call.

The most significant news from today’s announcement is that the administration’s “four-part test” of what constitutes a “religious employer” — a major sticking point for Catholic universities, charities and hospitals — has been scrapped for a simpler IRS definition. Under the original proposal, employers could be exempt from the contraception mandate only if their purpose was to inculcate religious values, they primarily employed those who shared their religious tenets, primarily served those who shared their religious beliefs and were a nonprofit under federal tax law. The first three parts of that definition were a big problem for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. For Catholics, medical institutions and charities are not tangential to a religious commitment, but central to putting faith into practice. Respected Catholic organizations like the Catholic Health Association, which supported the health care reform law and has distanced itself from the strident rhetoric of some bishops had been urging the administration to make this fix. At the same time, the administration’s proposals announced today, which are open to a 60-day public comment period, will still ensure women have access to contraception coverage without a co-pay. This is a victory for women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers.

It will take time for various religious organizations to digest the details of today’s announcement, and tensions won’t disappear overnight. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put out a brief initial statement saying bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”

Stay tuned.

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