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New birth control plan for faith groups

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration Friday proposed a compromise for faith-based nonprofits that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans.

Religious groups filed lawsuits over the proposed regulation, which requires most employers to cover birth control free of charge to female workers as a preventive service. The law exempted houses of worship, but religious charities, colleges, hospitals and even some for-profit businesses have objected.

The government's new offer has two parts.

Administration officials said it would more simply define the religious organizations that are exempt from the requirement altogether. For example, a mosque whose food pantry serves the whole community would not have to comply. For other religious employers, the proposal attempts to create a buffer between them and contraception coverage. Female employees would still have free access through insurers or a third party, but the employer would not have to arrange or pay for coverage. Insurers would be reimbursed by a credit against fees owed the government.

It wasn't clear whether the plan would satisfy the objections of Catholic and other faith-affiliated nonprofits. The Catholic Health Association, a trade group for hospitals, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the regulations were still being studied.

"The Diocese of Rockville Centre and its affiliated organizations await the opportunity for a full analysis of any changes to the existing mandate," spokesman Sean Dolan said. Bishop William Murphy has spoken out against the earlier proposed regulation.

The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 40 denominations, said the new version didn't create enough of a buffer between faith groups and birth control coverage. "The Obama administration should have done the right thing and dropped the contraception mandate, or at least should have exempted all religious organizations," said Leith Anderson, the group's president.

Some women's advocates praised the proposal. "Women employees can count on getting insurance that meets their needs, " said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.

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