Obama announces change in birth control coverage rule

WASHINGTON (ABP) – President Obama said Feb. 10 that insurance companies must pay for birth control services for women who work for religious institutions that object to paying for them on moral grounds.

The new policy updates a January announcement by Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius that churches would be exempt from paying for required coverage of FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures, but employers like religious schools and hospitals that hire people of different faiths have until August 2013 to get their house in order and start providing coverage for those services.

Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and other religious leaders called the policy an assault on religious freedom that would force faith-based institutions to violate their consciences by paying for services they view as immoral.

The new regulation will require insurance companies to cover contraception if the non-exempted religious organization chooses not to. Such employers will not be required to cover or subsidize birth control. Their companies will offer contraception coverage to women directly and free of charge, with no role for religious employers who oppose birth control.

President Obama called it “a solution that works for everyone.”

“Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women,” the president told reporters.

Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs and Wake Forest Divinity School, said the policy adjustment “resolves the religious liberty concerns and respects the interests of Americans who would like to have these important health benefits.”

“President Obama and his administration deserve great credit for implementing a solution that honors free exercise rights and fairness,” said Rogers, who chaired President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships 2009-2010. “I deeply appreciate the fact that the White House has taken the religious community’s concerns so seriously.”

The Catholic Health Association of the United States released a statement saying it was “very pleased” with the announcement. Catholic hospitals employ 530,673 full-time employees and 235,221 part-time workers, according to the association’s website. Each year, one in six patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital.

“I’ve been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as we promised,” Obama said. While “people of good will on both sides” disagree on the issue, he said, that “doesn’t mean we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness.”

Rogers, a Baptist, said her own faith tradition and conscience support the use of contraceptives, but the issue for her is not birth control but rather the freedom of religious bodies “to practice their faith as they see fit, not as government sees fit.”

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