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Religious Reaction To Contraception Mandate Changes Mixed; Some Say Religious Freedom Is Violated

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Protesters stand outside the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse Friday, March 23, 2012 in Phoenix. during the Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally. The rally was part of a nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom against the Obama administration’'s contraception mandate.
Protesters stand outside the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Courthouse Friday, March 23, 2012 in Phoenix. during the Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally. The rally was part of a nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom against the Obama administration’'s contraception mandate.

Despite the Obama administration's attempts to allay concerns among some institutions with religious objections to contraception, proposed changes to the national health care law requiring most employers to provide insurance coverage for birth control were met with tepid responses or strong criticism.

The administration said Friday that the new rules would ensure that no religious non-profit would have to cover the costs of birth control, sterilization and emergency contraceptive pills. Instead, the costs would be covered by separate health insurance policies, including costs for employees of religious organizations that self-insure. The new proposal would also expand the definition of a religious employer from a house of worship or an organization that exists to propagate religion to nonprofits that have a religious grounding but employ people of many different faiths. (See HuffPost's Laura Bassett's report for more details on how the proposal would work).

But instead of being praised by religious organizations, dozens of whom have sued the administration because they say the contraception mandate violates their religious freedom, the proposed changes have been criticized or met with lukewarm responses.

The biggest foe of the contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had a muted reaction Friday. Its president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, said he welcomed "the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely" and would be "issuing a more detailed statement later."

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has sued on behalf of dozens of religious employers against the contraception rule, said the proposed changes were wanting.

“Today’s proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans. The rights of family businesses like Hobby Lobby are still being violated. The Becket Fund continues to study what effect, if any, the Administration’s proposed rule has on the many lawsuits on behalf of non-profit religious organizations like Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, East Texas Baptist University, EWTN, Houston Baptist University, and Wheaton College," Kyle Duncan, the group's General Counsel, said in a statement.

The potential changes would not apply to for-profit businesses, such as Christian-owned craft store chain Hobby Lobby, which protested the inclusion of morning-after pills in the coverage requirements.

Michael Warsaw, the CEO of EWTN, a Catholic television network that also sued the administration over the rules, said in a statement that he was disappointed.

"The initial conclusions are not promising. First, this is simply a notice of a proposed rule; it is not an actual rule that changes anything. Second, while the proposed rules might expand the mandate’s religious exemption for some organizations affiliated directly with the church, it does not appear that EWTN will qualify for this exemption," he said.

Warsaw said the network "remains firmly committed to pressing forward with our case in the Federal Courts and will take all steps necessary to challenge this unjust mandate.”

Catholics for Choice, a liberal organization that supports the use of birth control, also was critical.

“Today the Obama Administration did the right thing the wrong way...the proposed rule’s expansion of which employers can be exempted from providing comprehensive preventive healthcare, including contraception, is appalling," said president Jon O’Brien. "Women who work at Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies are wondering whether they’ll be able to get the same coverage as millions of other women, or if their healthcare just isn’t as important to the president as their bosses’ beliefs about sex and reproduction.

The executive director of Americans United, an organization that supports the separation of church and state, said in a statement that the new compromise goes too far.

"Birth control is a fact of modern life," said Barry Lynn. "This proposed rule acknowledges that reality while going out of its way to accommodate religious groups. This should more than satisfy religiously affiliated institutions that have objected to the birth control mandate."

In a statement, the National Association of Evangelicals objected to the proposed change, saying that "religious organizations are still required to pay for an insurance policy that then triggers coverage for contraception and abortifacients under a second policy."

NAE president Leith Anderson called that "a work-around that doesn’t work."

“The Obama administration should have done the right thing and dropped the contraception mandate, or at least should have exempted all religious organizations," he said. The NAE also said it objected because the administration's expanded definition of a religious employer "still narrowly limits the definition to organizations registered with the IRS as churches, excluding most religious non-profits."

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