Decision Expected Soon on Broadening Religious Exemption for Contraceptive Coverage

A decision by the Obama Administration is expected soon, possibly before Thanksgiving, on broadening the religious exemption for contraceptive coverage. Women’s rights and pro-choice groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and NARAL Pro-Choice America, have joined together to urge the Obama Administration not to consider broader religious exemptions under the Affordable Care Act which requires health insurance providers under the preventive care package to cover contraceptives without co-pays.

The Catholic Bishops want to exempt the health insurance of every religiously-connected or associated institution from this requirement, affecting millions of Americans. Those affected would include students, teachers and staff at religiously-connected or associated schools and universities; social workers, nurses, and other staff (and their families) at religiously-affiliated hospitals; federally-funded social service organizations like Catholic Charities.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), under Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, issued a narrow religious exemption, which the Administration is considering broadening. This religious exemption is applicable to “not-for-profit groups that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose, primarily employ individuals who hold certain religious beliefs and primarily serve a population with those tenants.” It is interpreted that this religious exemption would only cover employees of the religious institutions themselves, such as employees of churches, synagogues, or mosques.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) spoke out against expanding the exemption, stating, “There is not a scintilla of legislative direction in the statute that requires the broadened exemption that the administration is contemplating.” Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) added, “It just doesn’t make sense to take this benefit away from millions of women. Americans of all religious faiths overwhelmingly support broad access to birth control.”

This coverage of birth control without co-pays under the preventive care package of the Affordable Care Act was recommended by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. Moreover, voters overwhelmingly supported this requirement, including 77 percent of Catholic women. Women’s rights groups are determined to protect women’s access to birth control without co-pays.

National Partnership for Women and Families 11/21/11; NARAL Pro-Choice America 11/21/11; Planned Parenthood Action Fund 11/21/11; New York Times 11/19/11; Feminist Majority Foundation Email 11/17/11

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