WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration simplified its definition of religious groups that would be exempt from allowing contraceptive coverage for staffers.
The proposed rule change, posted for comment Friday through April 8, also proposed a mechanism to provide contraceptive coverage for self-insured groups.
The move aims to address two of the reasons religious groups had objected to in an earlier version, which they considered too restrictive because it required an exempt group to primarily employ or serve those who share its faith.
The amended rule proposed Friday hews to the tax code’s definition of a house of worship, which more broadly encompasses all houses of worship and affiliates.
Religiously-run institutions that do not primarily serve spiritual needs — such as universities, hospitals and orphanages — would still be required to provide contraceptive coverage.
Religious groups had also objected to the original proposal because it had required contracted insurers, and not the faith-based employer, to cover contraception and did not adequately take into account the many organizations that self-insure, albeit through third-party administrators.
The new proposal extends the requirement for contraceptive coverage to such third party administrators, mandating that they provide employees with separate contraceptive coverage plans.
A broad array of Jewish groups had welcomed the original proposal, but Orthodox Jewish groups objected — not because they oppose contraception coverage, but because of what they regarded as the government’s unwarranted determination of what is and is not a religious organization.
Conservative Christian groups said that because the "two-tiered" designation remained, the proposal remained flawed.
"Today’s proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans," said the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a group that represents a number of plaintiffs challenging the rule in court.
The Orthodox Union tentatively welcomed the changes in the new proposal, pending a full reading.
"We appreciate the Obama Administration’s ongoing effort to resolve this balance properly and, reportedly, its abandonment of what would have been a very harmful precedent," Nathan Diament, its Washington director, said in a statement. "We look forward to examining the proposal more closely and filing formal comments with the Administration in the coming weeks."
The National Council of Jewish Women, which has friend of the court briefs attached to some of the legal challenges to the original rule, also welcomed the changes, noting that its protections of contraceptive coverage remained intact.
"We’re pleased that the administration has once again made it clear in pretty strong terms that contraception must be available as part of the women’s health package to all women if they want it," NCJW’s Washington director, Sammie Moshenberg, told JTA.