The Obama administration is inching reluctantly toward offering more religious protections for nonprofits and other employers who object to federal birth control mandates. But it’s stopping short of offering true relief for those institutions that believe the government is impinging on their rights of conscience.
In the past three years, the White House has offered eight modifications to its so-called religious “accommodations” from the Obamacare contraception requirements that all employers offer women free access to a wide range of birth control, including abortion inducing drugs, in their insurance plans.
Yet, even though the protections are broader and more far-reaching than they were in 2011, they still aren’t satisfying the concerns of leading religious groups, including the Catholic Church. Other religious affiliated schools and charities remain concerned, as do for-profit business owners with religious beliefs.
The administration is making the changes in response to recent court cases, including decisions this summer by the Supreme Court, that found constitutional problems with earlier versions of the law.
The latest round of alterations came in late August, and affected institutions are still looking them over.
Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented many of the challengers to these mandates — including the Hobby Lobby owners — still has concerns.
“Under pressure from hundreds of lawsuits, the government continues to retreat,” Windham said in a statement. “After three losses in the Supreme Court and dozens of losses in courts below, the government continues to confuse the issues. The government issued over 70 pages of regulations, when all it needed to do was read the First Amendment.”
Ultimately, the Obama administration keeps coming up with slightly different ways to achieve the same result: All employers — even religious nonprofits — must still be involved in offering birth control to their employees.
The new compromise offers a process in which employers opposed to including birth control in their insurance would send their written objections to the federal government, which would then contact the employer’s insurance company.
Previously, the accommodation called for objecting religious nonprofits to fill out a form and send it directly to their insurance companies. The insurers would then have to cover the cost of birth control. This was too much complicity for many of these employers.
Days after the Supreme Court recognized the religious rights of small business owners in its Hobby Lobby decision, it granted additional relief to Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, through an injunction. The court indicated the previous compromise likely wouldn’t hold up to numerous lawsuits from religious nonprofits.
More than 100 cases have been brought against the administration, challenging these mandates. The federal government has made strides to offer more compromises, coming a long a way from its original narrow exemption for places of worship.
But its plans still place limits on First Amendment protections, and as long as that’s true, they won’t pass muster.