Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seen here giving the homily during a July 4 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., said the Department of Health and Human Services' proposed regulations would reduce rather than expand religious freedom.  (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seen here giving the homily during a July 4 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., said the Department of Health and Human Services’ proposed regulations would reduce rather than expand religious freedom. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Pro-life groups that have battled with the federal government since the first rules were issued on contraceptive coverage in 2012 derided the government’s latest rules allowing religious institutions — and potentially some for-profit companies — to opt out of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

“Once again HHS (the federal Department of Health and Human Services) continues to violate the conscience rights of Americans while claiming just the opposite,” said an Aug. 22 statement from Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life.

“Our own organization is a good example of the challenge posed: Americans United for Life is a public interest law firm that opposes life-ending drugs and devices required under the HHS mandate,” Yoest said. “Nevertheless, because we are not a faith-based group, we may be forced to purchase life-ending drugs and devices following the radical pro-abortion political agenda of this administration.”

An Aug. 22 fact sheet from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services outlined the interim final regulations, issued after two Supreme Court actions: a June 30 ruling that under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, closely held companies may be exempted from the contraceptive coverage requirement as a religious right, and a July 3 temporary stay granted to Christian-run Wheaton College in Illinois from complying with the HHS mandate.

Under the new rules, an eligible organization may advise HHS in writing of its religious objection to contraception coverage. HHS will then notify the insurer for a health plan, or the Department of Labor will notify the third-party administrator for a self-insured plan, that the organization objects to providing contraception coverage. The insurer or third-party administrator is responsible for providing enrollees separate no-cost payments for contraceptive services for as long as they remain in the plan.

According to the fact sheet, the obligations of insurers and/or third-party administrators to provide or arrange separate payments for contraceptive services are the same. This takes effect immediately.

HHS is soliciting comments on a proposal also released Aug. 22 for closely held companies, which would allow them to follow the same procedures nonprofits do when their owners object to the contraceptive mandate for religious reasons.

Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey, blasted the new rule in a June 22 statement, calling it “really just another highly coercive regulation — a direct, obnoxious, unprecedented government attack on the conscience rights of religious entities and anyone else, who for moral reasons, cannot and will not include potentially abortion-causing drugs … or contraception and sterilization procedures in their private insurance plans.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents numerous clients that are suing the government, including Hobby Lobby, issued an Aug. 22 statement calling the new rules the “latest step in the administration’s long retreat on the HHS mandate.” The statement noted that the organization had not yet reviewed the legal aspects of the new rule. As of Aug. 24, the Becket Fund had not released a legal analysis.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. bishops, also promised to review the interim final regulations and issue an evaluation after the review was completed.

“In keeping with our practice, we will evaluate the regulations according to the principles set forth in ‘United for Religious Freedom,'” issued in March 2012, he said in an Aug. 22 statement.

Archbishop Kurtz noted, though, that “by proposing to extend the ‘accommodation’ to the closely held for-profit employers that were wholly exempted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the proposed regulations would effectively reduce, rather than expand, the scope of religious freedom.”

As part of the Affordable Care Act, which became law in 2010, HHS requires nearly all employers to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs for all employees in company health plans. It includes a narrow exemption for religious employers that fit certain criteria.

Employers who are not exempt had been required to fill out a self-certification form — known as EBSA Form 700 — to direct a third party, usually the manager of an employer’s health plan, to provide the contested coverage.

Many religious employers that have sued over the mandate argue that even filling out Form 700 makes them complicit in providing coverage they find objectionable.

An HHS statement Aug. 22 said the rules “balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventative services important to their health, with the administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.”

— By Catholic News Service. Contributing to this story were Mark Pattison and Patricia Zapor.

Catholic News Service, serving since 1920 as a news agency specializing in reporting religion, is the primary source of national and world news that appears in the U.S. Catholic press. It is also a leading source of news for Catholic print and broadcast media throughout the world.

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