WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Friday proposed a compromise for faith-based nonprofit organizations that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans, trying to appease religious groups that have filed a tide of lawsuits over the president's signature health care overhaul.
Some of the lawsuits appear headed for the Supreme Court, threatening another divisive legal battle over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, the official name for Obama's health care overhaul, which requires most employers to cover birth control free of charge to female workers as a preventive service.
The birth-control rule, first introduced a year ago, became an election issue, with some advocates for women praising the mandate as a victory but some religious leaders decrying it as an attack on faith groups.
The law exempted churches and other houses of worship, but not religious charities, universities and hospitals. Catholic bishops, evangelicals and some religious leaders who have generally been supportive of Obama's policies lobbied fiercely for a broader exemption.
The new regulation attempts to create a barrier between religious groups 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.
Questions remained about how the services ultimately would be funded, but the Health and Human Services department said any additional cost would be covered by a deduction in federal user fees for whoever issues the policy.
The new regulation would also 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.
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.
The Catholic Church prohibits the use of artificial contraception. Evangelicals generally accept the use of birth control, but some object to specific methods such as the morning-after contraceptive pill, which they argue is tantamount to abortion, and is covered by the policy.
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.
But the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 40 denominations and works with the administration on immigration and other issues, quickly rejected the rule. It said the change didn't create enough of a buffer between faith groups and birth control coverage.
"The Obama administration should have done the right thing and dropped the contraception mandate, or at least should have exempted all religious organizations," said Leith Anderson, the association's president.
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?"
Some women's advocates were pleased.
"The important thing for us is that women employees can count on getting insurance that meets their needs, even if they're working for a religiously affiliated employer," said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.
Policy analyst Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the American Civil Liberties Union said the rule appeared to meet the ACLU's goal of providing "seamless coverage."
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement that the compromise would provide "women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns."
Scientific advisers to the government had recommended that artificial contraception, including sterilization, be included in a group of services for women under the Affordable Care Act. The goal, in part, is to help women space out pregnancies to promote health.
Obama had promised to change the birth control requirement so insurance companies — and not faith-affiliated employers — would pay for the coverage, but religious leaders said more changes were needed to make the plan work.
Since then, more than 40 lawsuits have been filed by religious nonprofits and secular for-profit businesses contending the mandate violates their religious beliefs. As expected, this latest regulation does not provide any accommodation for individual business owners who have religious objections to the rule.
In its new version of the rule, the Health and Human Services Department argues that the change won't impose new costs on insurers because it will save them money "from improvements in women's health and fewer child births."
The latest version of the mandate is now subject to a 60-day public comment period. The overall mandate is to take effect for religious nonprofits in August.
Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and David Crary contributed to this story.