Women who work for religious nonprofits will have access to birth control at no cost under a procedure the Obama administration said would also relieve their employers of any moral objections to the coverage.
The nonprofits will now only have to notify the U.S. government of their objections in writing, the administration said in a regulation published yesterday. Coverage will be arranged separately by the government through health-benefit managers.
It isn’t clear whether the compromise will satisfy the nonprofit groups or the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled earlier this year that those organizations and closely held companies are protected from supplying birth control if they object on religious grounds. In a separate filing, the U.S. said it hasn’t yet finished a definition for closely held companies covered by the ruling.
“It’s a moral question that different people may have different answers on,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented many of the groups, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think it’s going to make all the religious ministries’ cases go away.”
Three days after its June 30 decision on behalf of the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the Supreme Court issued an order saying Wheaton College, a Christian liberal-arts school outside Chicago, didn’t have to fill out a government form to facilitate contraceptive coverage for its employees and students.
The school said that completing the form would make it complicit in the coverage. While Wheaton covers most birth control, it objects to two pills, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.’s Plan B One-Step and Actavis Plc’s Ella.
“The administration believes the accommodation is legally sound, but in light of the Supreme Court order regarding Wheaton College, the departments are augmenting their regulations to provide an alternative for objecting nonprofit religious organizations to provide notification, while ensuring that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate coverage of contraceptive services without cost sharing,” Eric Schultz, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters.
Under the new government requirement, religious nonprofits would write a letter to the health department announcing their objections instead of filling out a form. In the letter, the nonprofits must register their objection “based on sincerely held religious beliefs” and identify which contraceptive methods they oppose. They are asked to provide details on their health plan and the name and contact information for the company that administers it.
“Nothing in this alternative notice process requires a government assessment of the sincerity of the religious belief underlying the eligible organization’s objection,” the administration said in the regulation.
Rienzi said the Obama administration should simply exempt religious groups from the requirement entirely.
“That would make life a lot easier,” he said. “The idea the government can’t find a way to provide contraceptive coverage without involving nuns is silly.”
One of the cases against the government was brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a convent based in Baltimore that operates nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Congress could resolve the issue by passing legislation clarifying the requirement and creating a way to cover women who work for exempt employers, Schultz said. Republicans in the Senate blocked Democratic legislation in July that would have required all for-profit companies to cover birth control, including closely held firms.
“Women across the country deserve access to recommended preventive services that are important to their health, no matter where they work,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement.