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HHS mandate changes appear to ease religious freedom assault; U.S. bishops studying modifications

The federal government today announced changes to the Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious organizations to offer insurance coverage of morally objectionable services that appear to recognize religious freedom concerns.

However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement in a press release, noting the nearly 80 pages of proposed regulations needed further study.

“Today, the Administration issued proposed regulations regarding the HHS mandate," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who serves as president of the USCCB. "We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.”

The Catholic Conference of Illinois has no additional comment at this time.

The original HHS mandate calls for all employers to offer insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations. This final rule issued in January 2012 includes a religious exemption so narrow that most religiously affiliated organizations would not qualify. The four-pronged exemption states that an organization qualifies if it 1. has the inculcation or teaching of religious values as its purpose; 2. primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; 3. primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and 4. is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

The changes announced today in a press release and fact sheet eliminate the first three criteria, thereby apparently exempting Catholic dioceses, hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, Charities, and social service programs.

The modifications also state that employees of the exempt religious organizations would be offered contraceptive coverage through a third party at no cost to the employee or the organizations. An eligible organization — whether it is group insured or self-insured (serves as the insurer) — "does not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage."

Most Catholic institutions are self-insured.

For-profit entities that refuse to offer contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs are not included in these changes. Therefore, businesses such as Hobby Lobby — which are suing the government over the HHS mandate over First Amendment protections — will get no relief under these proposed changes.

The proposed regulations were filed this morning with the Office of the Federal Register. Public comments on the proposal will be accepted by the federal government through April 8, 2013.