AP file photo of birth control.
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - Women who work for religious-affiliated organizations can have contraceptive services under their health insurance through separate coverage while allowing their employers not to violate their religious beliefs by exempting them from paying for it, according to a proposed regulation issued Friday by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Last August, when the government announced that insurance plans must cover women's contraceptive services with no co-pays under the 2010 health care law, some employers - churches, religious schools and hospitals - took issue with being forced to provide a service that goes against their beliefs.
"Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a press statement. "We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."
Under the proposed rule, religious organizations would inform their insurer of their exemption, and then the insurer would inform the organization's employees that the insurer would provide them with no-cost contraceptive coverage through a separate insurance policy not connected to the religious employer.
Critics immediately took issue with the proposal. Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group that advocates prayers at public meetings and crosses on public land, called the rule an "abortion pill mandate."
"The administration's narrow gesture does nothing to protect many faith-based employers or religious families from the unconstitutional abortion pill mandate," said senior legal counsel Matt Bowman. "The government has no business putting religious freedom on the negotiating table, or picking and choosing who is allowed to exercise faith."
Bowman refers to the "morning-after pill," which a woman takes within five days of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.
Priests for Life, a Roman-Catholic anti-abortion group that also objects to contraceptives, said the rule requiring contraceptive care should be rescinded completely.
But Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said he sees it as a "win-win" for both religious organizations and the government.
"I think they really worked hard to find a solution to take care of the problem that Catholic hospitals had with the rule," he said. "Congress made clear that it did not want abortion covered by federal funds."
He said he would leave the debate over whether the morning-after pill qualifies as an "abortion" to medical specialists.
"I think this should make both the bishops and the hospitals happy," he said, "and at the same time, it keeps employees happy."
The proposed rule is here: www.ofr.gov/inspection.aspx