March 16th, 2012
08:00 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi and Jessica Yellin, CNN
Washington (CNN) - The Obama administration announced late Friday two new steps in a controversial contraception mandate.
In an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking posted in the Federal Register, the administration offered several policy suggestions that would require the administrator of the insurance policy, not the religious institution or the insurer, to pay for contraception coverage.
The Obama administration also announced a new final rule on student health plans that effectively applies the contraception accommodation to religiously affiliated universities. This means students at religious universities that have moral objections can get contraception for free through their insurance providers. Schools have a one-year grace period before complying.
For religious institutions that provide their own insurance, the mandate opened the door to Americans to "formally comment on ideas for implementing this policy."
Sandra Fluke, the student who was at the center of a firestorm over contraception rules at her religious university, applauded the decision, saying in a statement, "I am very pleased that under these policies all women, regardless of what school they attend or where they work, will soon have affordable access to contraception."
The original mandate, enforcing part of the Affordable Care Act, included that insurers must provide, at no cost, all FDA-approved forms of contraception. Houses of worship have been exempted from the start, but now the administration is widening those exemptions to include other religiously affiliated groups.
Religious groups across a wide spectrum denounced the mandate, saying it infringed on their religious liberty. Most vocal was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"The bishops will begin analyzing it immediately, but now is too early to know what it says," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"I'm surprised such important information would be announced late Friday on St. Patrick's Day weekend as we prepare for the fourth Sunday of Lent," she added.
The new regulation prohibits lifetime limits on contraception and covers preventive services without cost-sharing for students on a college or university health plan. The new rule outlines that religious colleges and universities will not have to "pay, arrange, or refer" contraceptives for students, according to a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.
"The president's policy respects religious liberty and makes free preventive services available to women," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the statement. "Today's announcement is the next step toward fulfilling that commitment."
The White House held a Friday afternoon conference call with stakeholders outlining the new plan, according to a Democratic activist who participated in the call but was not authorized to speak on the record about it.
Joshua DuBois, the director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, led the call, and Catholic health care and advocacy groups joined, the source said.
The extension of the religious exemption to colleges had been a major point of contention for many religious institutions.
"This is something the bishops should be happy about," said Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.
"I think the take-away from this is, it's clear the administration is serious about its efforts to address the concerns of the Catholic bishops and others as it relates to the insurance mandate."
In an effort to address concerns of religious groups that self-insure, the new rules suggest creating "an exemption for group health plans established or maintained by certain religious employers."
The policy continued with a suggested four-part definition of who might qualify. It says the group must have religious values as its purpose, primarily employ people who share those religious beliefs, primarily serve persons who share those beliefs and be a nonprofit organization.
When the preliminary rule for the contraception mandate was released last year, it had a different four-point definition for a religious organization. Religious colleges and charities were all but written out of the definition, so they would not be included in the exemption.
According to the source, the administration said it does not want the new definition used as a precedent for future policies and regulation, the source said.
"It should ameliorate some of their concerns," Schneck said of the bishops.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Conference of Bishops said in a statement that the fight over the contraception mandate was strictly a religious liberty issue.
"One particular religious freedom issue demands our immediate attention: the now-finalized rule of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would force virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception-including abortifacient drugs-subject to an exemption for 'religious employers' that is arbitrarily narrow, and to an unspecified and dubious future 'accommodation' for other religious organizations that are denied the exemption," the statement read.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.