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The Obama administration announced today a small shift in an earlier position on who covers contraception, but observers are still voicing concerns over how his administration exempts religious groups.

Religious organizations will not have to provide or directly subsidize the cost of contraception or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception, the administration announced. "Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama said in a press conference. Rather, employers' insurance companies must offer contraception coverage to women directly, free of charge.

Pro-life groups released statements suggesting the shift was not enough. "The so-called one year delay last month was a clear slap in the face of religious groups, and this new proposal still requires religious entities that are not exempt as a church to subsidize and pay insurance companies so they can give free birth control to their employees," said Tony Perkins, Family Research Council president. "However, it won't be free, because the insurance companies will increase the premium and administrative costs to the employer."

A White House official told the Washington Post that under the policy, insurers will not be able to set premiums higher than it would have been without birth control.

Religious groups' initial concerns centered on two issues. In its August announcement, the administration required that religious employers that are not churches would have to cover certain contraceptives such as Plan B (or "the morning-after pill"). Groups also voiced concerns about the narrow religious exemption of churches, which was not changed under Obama's decision today.

Observers are still determining how the White House's announcement will impact various religious groups. For instance, it appears that for-profit religious companies will need to provide contraception. Remaining questions include whether faith-based insurance companies will be exempted from the mandate.

GuideStone, a Southern Baptist medical plan provider that covers about 200,000 people, pays benefits directly and does not use a third-party insurance company. "The President's statement today is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight of hand word game," said GuideStone's president O.S. Hawkins.

Also unclear is how the policy will impact religious organizations that are self-insured. White House officials said today in a call with religious leaders that the updated rule will apply to self-funded plans of religious nonprofits, but the details of how the rule will apply those plans will be worked out in the transition period.

"What are the actual contours? People are still trying to figure it out," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "Nobody that I've talked to says this is wonderful, a slam dunk, let's go home and have Thanksgiving early."

Religious leaders saw the ruling as a restriction on religious groups that could also set a poor precedent for future restrictions.

"I'm not sure if they've nailed it," said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). "The definition of religious employers is very relevant to a number of issues, not just this specific case."

Several evangelicals, such as Albert Mohler, Jim Daly, and Chuck Colson suggested that the mandate was not just an issue for Catholics but a question of religious freedom.

"I'm not a Catholic but I stand in 100% solidarity with my brothers & sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure," Rick Warren tweeted. "I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a govement [sic] mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29."

The administration's January 20 decision to uphold but delay the implementation of the original mandate surprised many, including several people who had previously supported the health care bill.

The Becket Fund filed lawsuits on behalf of Colorado Christian University (an evangelical Protestant college), Belmont Abbey College (a Catholic college), and the Catholic media network EWTN.

"From what we've seen so far is, this is not a compromise," said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It looks more like a political decision to quell the issue before the election."

The administration reportedly made calculations to determine whether the mandate would impact Obama politically, pitting pro-choice supporters against Catholics, who are seen as a potential swing vote. Senior adviser David Plouffe, according to Politico, "concluded that the vast majority of Catholic voters, who don't adhere to the church's dictates on birth control anyway, wouldn't punish Obama for his decision."

Under the mandate, covered contraceptives would include ella and Plan B that work by making it unlikely that an embryo will be able to attach to the wall of the uterus, which many evangelicals consider abortifacients.

A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that while 55 percent of Americans support a requirement that all businesses provide contraception coverage, only about a third support requiring church insurance plans to provide birth control.

"The good news, the White House is listening. It's a little late, but it's a start," said Leith Anderson, president of the NAE. But it's unclear whether the shift goes far enough. "I don't see a great deal of movement on the extension of the exemption. It's going to take until after the weekend to figure this out."


Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today reported how Protestants are increasingly joining Catholics in protesting the Health & Human Services mandate.

Previous coverage of health care, contraception, life ethics, and politics includes:

Your Insurance May Already Cover 'Abortion-Inducing Drugs' | Health and Human Services ruled last week that insurance plans must provide contraception with no copayment. (August 12, 2011)
Reforming Health Care Reform | How states are blocking abortion coverage. (June 29, 2010)
Health Care Reform Enacted—Now What? | Activists react to the new health care law and reignite a movement for immigration reform. (March 26, 2010)

CT covers more political developments on the politics blog.

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