The Obama administration ruled Friday that employees of religious-affiliated, nonprofit institutions would receive insurance coverage for birth control under Obamacare, ensuring more legal challenges to the rule.
"[Friday'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," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Early last year, the Obama administration said that universities, hospitals, and other employers with a religious affiliation could avoid paying directly for contraceptives.
Under that Obamacare arrangement, insurance companies would instead provide coverage and pay for it.
The rule requires an institution's health insurer or third-party insurance administrator to notify employees about birth control benefits and provide beneficiaries with direct payments that cover the cost of contraceptive services.
The announcement by Sebelius puts into effect a requirement that has been beset by more than a year of talks between administration officials and religious employers.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other denominations oppose contraception on religious grounds and have protested against the requirement, along with conservatives.
"We have received and started to review the 110-page final rule," New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the conference’s president, said in a statement. "It will require more careful analysis. We will provide a fuller statement when that analysis is complete."
While the rule took effect on Jan. 1, the White House gave nonprofit employers five more months to adjust to the new regulations by having them apply to plans beginning on or after Jan. 1 of this year.
Other employers have been required to make contraceptive coverage available to their workers since last August.
Meanwhile, women's advocates applauded the decision as a milestone that could have profound impact on the education and economic opportunities of women, including college students.
"Birth control is basic healthcare for women, and this policy treats it like any other kind of preventive care," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Roberts.
Opponents say the policy, part of President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, violates religious tenets of both nonprofit and for-profit employers, particularly coverage for the morning-after pill to stop pregnancy and other types of contraceptives, which they view as tantamount to abortion.
Employers have had legal successes, raising speculation that the lawfulness of the rule may eventually be tested by the Supreme Court.
Religious organizations and businesses have filed more than 60 lawsuits against the requirement — and the courts have granted nearly 20 private businesses temporary relief from the law while their cases proceed in court.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the same relief to a religiously affiliated nonprofit for the first time in the case of Geneva College, which was established by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
The Friday ruling came a day after a federal appeals court in Denver ruled that Hobby Lobby, the family-owned arts and crafts chain, may be exempt from offering contraceptive benefits to its 13,000 full-time workers.
Hobby Lobby's lawyer, Kyle Duncan, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said his organization filed an emergency request late on Thursday asking a federal district court to take immediate action on the company's request for an exemption from the mandate.
The retailer, based in Jensen Beach, Fla., was excused by a federal judge on Friday from paying up to $1.3 million a day in fines for not providing coverage.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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