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President Barack Obama's administration on Friday proposed rule changes to exempt religious groups more broadly from having to pay for their employees' contraceptive care under his health care reform.
"The proposed rules provide women with coverage for preventive care that includes contraceptive services with no co-pays, while also respecting the concerns of some religious organizations," said Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The proposed changes are open for a period of public comment until April 8, 2013, after which time HHS will determine whether or not to adopt them.
President Barack Obama signed his healthcare reform plan -- the Affordable Care Act -- into law in March 2010. Some of its provisions have already gone into effect, while others are being phased in over the coming years.
Many churches and faith-based organizations opposed provisions in the law requiring that they provide birth control coverage to their employees, citing religious objections.
The administration now is proposing that non-profit religious organizations, including religious hospitals and religious colleges would also receive an "accommodation" whereby their female workers would get third party contraception coverage not paid for by their employers.
"Eligible organizations would not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds," the government statement said.
Some religious groups hailed the proposed policy change as a victory.
"The Catholic Church... won today by maintaining a recognition that issues of morality and personal choice must be respected," the group Catholics United said in a statement.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, adopted a more cautious tone.
"We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely," the group said in a press release. "We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later."
Under the original rule, a religious employer could not have qualified for the exemption if it employed or served a large number of people of a different faith, as is the case for many Catholic universities, hospitals and charities.
Despite the cautious optimism expressed by some religious groups, others complained that moves broadening the rules governing the healthcare law's contraception provisions did not go far enough.
"Once again, President Obama's so-called 'compromise' is unacceptable. Religious and moral freedom is not up for negotiation," said Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, a non-profit which aims to get anti-abortion candidates elected to the US Congress.
"There must be no religious 'test' by the government as to who, and what type of entities, are entitled to a conscience," she said.
"We demand respect for non-religious entities," such as her own group, which Dannenfelser said believes that "the taking of human life is the antithesis of health care."