The Obama administration on Friday issued final health-care rules providing insurance coverage for contraceptives to women who work for religious organizations, including colleges affiliated with faith groups, but at no cost to the employers.
Under the new rules, which were proposed in February, some religious organizations, primarily places of worship, may "exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for their employees and their dependents," according to a summary of the final regulations.
The administration carved out an exception for religious groups after they accused it of forcing them to disregard tenets of their faiths that forbid the use of birth control.
"Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work," Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, said in a written statement.
The new rules also provide a way for other kinds of religious nonprofit organizations, such as hospitals and colleges, to avoid arranging or paying for contraceptive coverage for their employees and students. Instead, the cost of contraception at those institutions would be borne by a separate insurance policy, at no cost to the organization, its workers, or students.
Colleges that arrange for health insurance for their students could seek a similar arrangement, under the rules, which are scheduled for publication on Monday in the Federal Register.
Opponents of the rules said they were still inadequate to protect the religious freedom of many organizations.
"This doesn't solve the religious-conscience problem because it still makes our nonprofit clients the gatekeepers to abortion and provides no protection to religious businesses," Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a news release. The Becket Fund is supporting several lawsuits by colleges challenging the regulations.
"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."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying that the organization was studying the final rules but appreciated an extension of the effective date of the requirements, from August 1 until January 1, for some nonprofit groups.
"The remainder of the rule is long and complex. It will require more careful analysis. We will provide a fuller statement when that analysis is complete," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the conference, said in the statement.