“This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, head of a system of 13 Catholic hospitals in Indiana and Illinois.
The rule, which was first announced last summer and which has drawn more than 200,000 comments, requires private insurance not merely to include birth control, but to do so without out-of-pocket charges. It will take effect beginning Aug. 1, as plans renew.
From the beginning, the rule exempted employers such as churches whose primary purpose is to inculcate religious beliefs and that mainly employ and serve individuals who share those beliefs. Religious advocates argued that this definition was too narrow, excluding a wide range of church-affiliated universities, hospitals and schools.
On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled a small change: Religious organizations will be allowed an extra year to comply with the requirement. But the rule itself and the types of employers covered by it will remain unchanged, she said.
The delay was no consolation to Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” he said. “The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand.”
Sebelius portrayed the delay option as a reasonable compromise between competing interests. “This . . . strikes a balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” she said in a statement.
Many women’s groups and Democratic lawmakers greeted the decision with relief. They had feared the administration was planning to significantly broaden the religious exemption.
“This is good news for millions of women whose access to contraceptive services under this new benefit was being questioned,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Dolan had raised the exemption issue directly with President Obama in November. Following that meeting, word began to spread that the administration was considering ways to address the bishops’ concerns.
Democratic lawmakers who are advocates of women’s reproductive rights launched a vigorous counteroffensive — venting their outrage in several conference calls with top White House advisers and, in the case of at least one senator, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), lobbying the president in person.
On Friday, those lawmakers pronounced themselves thrilled.