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Sebelius (Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak)

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Religion | The Obama administration refuses to expand the thin religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate

WASHINGTON-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' comment in August that not covering contraceptives "would be like not covering flu shots" should have been a clue to what was coming.

On Friday the Obama administration announced it would not change the new healthcare law's requirement that most religious groups provide their employees with coverage for contraceptives, including abortifacients like Plan B and Ella. The only exemption from the requirement is for groups that have the "inculcation of religious values" as their primary mission and who serve and employ people of that faith-which essentially only covers churches.

"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," Sebelius said in a statement Friday. "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."

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Sebelius, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, and the head of the White House faith-based office, Joshua Dubois, held a conference call Friday with various interested parties, including some leaders in the religious community, to explain the rule, which had been under a period of review.

Religious groups that already cover contraceptives in their healthcare plans must continue to do so. Therefore, if a religious group that objects to funding contraceptives hasn't read its own insurance policy but now discovers that it offers such coverage, then tough luck. The groups that don't provide contraceptives will receive an extra year's extension to decide what to do before the requirement takes effect, giving them until August 2013. Employers that do not cover contraceptives must provide information to employees about where contraceptives are available.

Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and some Democrats on Capitol Hill had lobbied the administration furiously in the last few months to keep the contraceptive mandate as is, without expanding the religious exemption. Planned Parenthood told its supporters that President Obama was on the verge of a decision "to take away birth control coverage from millions of women." Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, thought Obama was on the verge of that decision too after meeting with him in November. Dolan said the president was sensitive to the religious liberty question surrounding the contraceptive debate and Dolan felt "more at peace about this issue" after the meeting.

Those feelings are gone now. "Religious colleges, universities, and hospitals will never pay for abortion drugs in violation of their religious beliefs-this year or any other year," said Hannah Smith, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who is working on lawsuits the group filed against the administration over the contraceptive exemption. Smith said the contraceptive mandate will not survive "constitutional scrutiny."

This is a decision that will likely anger a broad spectrum of religious groups, not just conservative evangelicals or Catholics. Evangelicals for Social Action, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Prison Fellowship, World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals, Agudath Israel of America, and Notre Dame Law School, among many others, sent a letter to the White House in August protesting the exemption as "narrow" and "inadequate." Those groups sent another letter in December.

"It is emphatically not only Catholics who deeply object to the requirement that health plans they purchase must provide coverage of contraceptives that include some that are abortifacients," they wrote Obama. "It is not only Catholics who object to the narrow exemption that protects only seminaries and a few churches, but not churches with a social outreach and other faith-based organizations that serve the poor and needy broadly providing help that goes beyond worship and prayer."

"There will be a lot of very unhappy organizations," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, the head of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, who has been engaged in this debate with the Obama administration. "The question is how far will the unhappiness go."

Carlson-Thies said most religious groups, aside from the Catholic Church and the Protestant Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, aren't very educated about the implications of the decision. "Now, they'll have to think about it," he said.

Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic school, and Colorado Christian University each filed lawsuits against the administration over the religious exemption in November and December. "The government's mandate unconstitutionally coerces Colorado Christian to violate its deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties," the university's lawsuit reads.

"My guess is there are going to be some more names added to the lawsuits," said Carlson Thies.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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