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Obama offers new accommodations on birth control

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WASHINGTON (AP) -

Seeking to quell a politically charged controversy, the Obama administration announced new measures Aug. 22 to allow religious nonprofits and some companies to opt out of paying for birth control for female employees while still ensuring those employees have access to contraception.

Even so, the accommodations may not fully satisfy religious groups who oppose any system that makes them complicit in providing coverage they believe is immoral.

Effective immediately, the U.S. will start allowing faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals to notify the government — rather than their insurers — that they object to birth control on religious grounds. Then the government will instruct a nonprofit's insurer or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control, at no cost to the employer.

In a related move, the administration announced plans to extend an existing accommodation to some for-profit corporations that is currently available only to nonprofits. That measure would be available for "closely held" corporations that are owned by families or a small number of investors, and would transfer responsibility for birth control coverage away from the employer, according to a fact sheet posted on a government website.

The duel decisions mark the Obama administration's latest effort to address a long-running conflict that has pitted the White House against churches and other religious groups, sparking dozens of legal challenges. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can't force companies like Hobby Lobby Inc. to pay for birth control. Days later, the high court sided with religious nonprofits such as Wheaton College, an evangelical school, which argued that the existing accommodation required them to sign a form that violated their beliefs.

The latest proposals, which were expected to be formally released later Friday, will likely run up against the same objections, because they still enable employees to receive contraception at no extra charge through their health plans — one of a range of preventive services required under President Barack Obama's health care law.

"We will be studying the new rule with our clients, but if today's announcement is just a different way for the government to hijack the health plans of religious ministries, it is unlikely to end the litigation," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented both Hobby Lobby and Wheaton.

The Obama administration had already offered nonprofits a way out of paying for the contraceptives by filling out a document, known as Form 700, that lets insurers assume responsibility for paying for birth control. The government later reimburses insurers through credits against fees owed under other parts of the Affordable Care Act. But Roman Catholic bishops and other religious plaintiffs argued that filling out Form 700 and sending it to their insurer was akin to signing a permission slip to engage in evil.

The administration's hope is that the new accommodation will be more palatable because it creates more distance between religious nonprofits and the health services they believe are immoral, by inserting the government as a middleman between nonprofits and their insurers.

Yet socially conservative groups like the Family Research Council immediately dismissed the measure as an "insulting accounting gimmick" that still leaves businesses and nonprofits complicit, because the health plans with which they contract would still be providing birth control.

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