President Obama speaks to Congress. Photo courtesy the White House

White House denies contraception exemption to private businesses

(RNS) The Obama administration on Friday (June 28) issued final rules for religious groups for its controversial contraception mandate, maintaining its position on who qualifies for religious exemption and allowing no carve-outs for private business owners.

President Obama speaks to Congress.  Photo courtesy the White House

President Obama speaks to Congress. Photo courtesy the White House

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

More than 60 lawsuits have been filed over the mandate, a part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act that requires most employers to provide contraception at no cost to employees.

Just as when the draft rules were first unveiled in February, conservatives denounced them as an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom that forces religious organizations and the religious owners of private businesses to offer services they find morally abhorrent.

Opponents of the mandate say that without relief, they will be forced to provide coverage for medication and sterilization procedures that they believe are tantamount to abortion.

"The Obama administration insists on waging war on religious freedom, and the final rule issued today confirms that," said Gregory S. Baylor, a lawyer with the conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

"On multiple levels, the president is articulating what is arguably the most narrow view of religious freedom ever expressed by an administration in this nation’s history.”

A “safe harbor” agreement that gave temporary reprieve from the contraceptive requirement was supposed to end in August, but on Friday the administration extended it to January 2014.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York prays during a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York May 2, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York prays during a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York May 2, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has led the charge against the mandate under the banner of religious freedom, welcomed the five-month reprieve but said the rules were too "long and complex" to give an immediate reaction.

The finalized rules from the Department of Health and Human Services come after months of intense battles over who could qualify for an exemption from the required coverage. As they did in February, Friday's rules define “religious employer” to include houses of worship and affiliated organizations such as hospitals or universities.

In a compromise that conservatives have called inadequate, the rules also transfer the cost of contraceptives away from objecting employers to insurance companies.

The HHS has different requirements for whether organizations qualify as an exempt religious employer or a nonprofit religious organization. One change from the February proposal is that religious institutions can qualify for exemption even if they employ people not of their faith.

If a nonprofit religious organization objects to covering contraceptives, its insurer or a third-party administrator will need to find coverage.

Before issuing the final rules, HHS received more than 400,000 comments from the public, said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, deputy director of policy and regulation at the HHS' Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight.

Liberal groups said the administration had been more than flexible with its critics.

"With this rule, the administration continues to stand by women and our families and refuses to let employers use religion to discriminate,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The new rules, however, do not apply to private businesses whose owners have religious or moral obligations to contraception -- and that issue has already been a major battleground in federal courts.

hobby lobby

Photo of a Hobby Lobby in Mansfield, Ohio courtesy Fan of Retail via Flickr.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned arts-and-crafts chain that's suing the government over the mandate, won a round Thursday in its bid to not offer the contraception coverage to employees. On Friday, a federal court  ordered the government to not enforce the mandate. Without the ruling, Hobby Lobby would be required to provide contraceptives on July 1 or face $1.3 million a day in fines, said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The trial court granted Hobby Lobby a temporary restraining order against the HHS mandate, making the ruling  the first definitive federal appellate ruling against the HHS mandate. Additionally, a Florida district court this week ruled that a Christian-owned electric company is not required to provide contraception coverage to employees.

For-profit cases have seen more court action because of the wait for Friday's final rules for religious nonprofits, Rassbach said. He told reporters to expect new lawsuits to be filed in the next few days now that the final rules have been issued.

“The easy way to resolve this would have been to exempt sincere religious employers completely, as the Constitution requires,” he said. “Instead, this issue will have to be decided in court.”

On the other hand, some are seeing the government’s rules as a step too far for religious organizations.

“The government has already bent over backwards to accommodate these groups,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “These churches are out of step with the times, and it’s time for the government to stop bending.”

Geneva College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania, is the only nonprofit that has been granted an injunction from being required to facilitate this coverage in its student plan, according to Alliance Defending Freedom.


  1. ” You can’t say or do that, it offends my religion.”

    This is a Taliban mentality. It’s Iron Age, draconian measures to force other people to live as they desire and it’s mostly male dominated. They are xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic.

    I hope they refuse and get charged $1.3 million/day. We could use some new revenue sources and the government can just pay for benefits out of those funds, until they comply.

  2. I will not venture to debate David Thompson in this forum. His use of the words:
    Taliban, “Iron Age”, draconian, “male dominated”, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic (all in the first paragraph) in describing those with whom he disagrees indicates a complete unwillingness to discuss the topic civilly.
    I must, however, point out the irony of his use of the word “draconian” in describing the refusal to pay for others use of contraception and then applauding the prolonged application of the $1.3 million per day (per day!!!) tax “until they comply”. THAT’S what I call “draconian” !

  3. Because its true! The christian right is all about controlling women’s sexuality so that it can remain dominated by men. The sooner we get rid of religion, the better.

  4. What civility? There is no civility when one person wants to dominate another person and their excuse is there religion is offended. At that point all civility is history and it’s pure competition for survival. When you are informed by an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent super being that is imaginary, why should anyone take you serious.

    People have set back for too many years and allowed religion to run roughshod over others. No more. People are standing up and pointing out the puerility of such beliefs as they should have been doing for a very long time. There are over 150 million believers and non believers that don’t agree with this evangelical/fundamentalist bible thumping brigade of tea baggers.

    No, if you are going to push your version of religion in my face, no civility is necessary.

  5. I support Hobby Lobby’s courageous efforts to stand up to Barack Obama. Although nobody knows what tomorrow will hold, I congratulate them on their victory thus far.

  6. The Florida decision, concerning Beckwith Electric, was largely based on that company being a “closely-held” corporation. The judge did not see any meaningful distinction between the company and Thomas Beckwith, who is the founder and majority owner. As such, the religious rights of the owner are extended to the company.

    The judge, in her decision, notes that a different district court took the opposite position regarding Hobby Lobby. The appeals court which, this week, granted a temporary injunction on fining Hobby Lobby seems to have sided with the Florida judge’s view of the law.

    The court cases are many, and the decisions sometimes contradictory, but it is good for us as a country to decided where we draw the line on individual religious liberty.

    I think the decisions made will likely have influence on how similar issues regarding gay marriage are resolved. Does a florist have a right to refuse to create arrangements for a same-sex wedding? What about a photographer asked to take wedding pictures or a baker to create a wedding cake?

    I think those questions revolve around the same religious liberty issues as in the contraception controversy of the Affordable Care Act. Where to we draw the line between serving the public and protecting an owner’s religious beliefs?

  7. Slowly, painfully slowly, the essential question is being brought into focus. It is both revolutionary and existential, as developed by both the article and responses. The government clearly seeks to limit the exercise of religion to only the interior walls of the church. The conduct of religious people in secular society, will be severely scrutinized by the bureaucracy, and offenders will be broken to the plow. However, there is also an active element which wants the church to be destroyed; they hold it is an evil, anachronistic cult, inherently devoid of any social good. The central issue is not about abortion; that is simply the battleground.
    This is not new to mankind, just new to the United States of America, a monotheistic nation. Its citizens must choose what is important to them; a fundamental freedom has been challenged. Who dictates how a religious person spends their money, or face a $1.3 million per day fine ?

  8. It is clear that this regime in power regards the First Amendment as so much rubbish to be ignored or given the run around.
    No wonder so many government agencies are abusing their power and exploiting the citizenry as so many sheep to be shorn.

  9. David Thompson is exactly right. Public policy must be evidence based, and should never be skewed by primitive superstition and dogma.

  10. There is much more than religious freedom at stake here. Basic human rights, and an acknowledgement that corporations ARE human beings not calculators or somehow NOT human. If you don’t like your companies insurance plan, you can always work somewhere else with a better plan right?

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