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State and Nation

February 1, 2013

Obama offers faith groups new birth control rule

— WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a wave of lawsuits over what government can tell religious groups to do, the Obama administration on Friday proposed a compromise for faith-based nonprofits that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans.

Some of the lawsuits appear headed for the Supreme Court, threatening another divisive legal battle over President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, which requires most employers to cover birth control free of charge to female workers as a preventive service. The law exempted churches and other houses of worship, but religious charities, universities, hospitals and even some for-profit businesses have objected.

The government's new offer, in a proposed regulation, has two parts.

Administration officials said it would more simply define the religious organizations that are exempt from the requirement altogether. For example, a mosque whose food pantry serves the whole community would not have to comply.

For other religious employers, the proposal attempts to create a buffer between them and contraception coverage. Female employees would still have free access through insurers or a third party, but the employer would not have to arrange for the coverage or pay for it. Insurers would be reimbursed for any costs by a credit against fees owed the government.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the plan would satisfy the objections of Roman Catholic charities and other faith-affiliated nonprofits nationwide challenging the requirement.

Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing religious nonprofits and businesses in lawsuits, said many of his clients will still have serious concerns.

"This is a moral decision for them," Duncan said. "Why doesn't the government just exempt them?"

Neither the Catholic Health Association, a trade group for hospitals, nor the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had an immediate reaction, saying the regulations were still being studied.

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