The Trump administration moved to protect religious objectors from Obamacare's mandatory contraception coverage, eliciting praise from religious organizations and pro-life activists.
On Wednesday evening the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would extend conscience protections to small businesses, non-profits, schools, and religious organizations that are morally opposed to various forms of contraception and sterilization. Those protections do not extend to publicly traded companies. The new rules came after President Trump issued an executive order instructing the department to review the Obama administration's narrow application of exemptions to the mandate.
"These rules expand exemptions to protect religious beliefs for certain entities and individuals," the final rules say. "The expanded exemptions are … consistent with longstanding federal laws that protect religious beliefs."
The agency estimated in a release that "the exemptions should affect no more than approximately 200 employers with religious or moral objections." Many of those groups have been outspoken in their opposition to the Obama administration's attempt to enforce the mandate. The Obama administration took a legal challenge filed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns dedicated to caring for impoverished elderly people, all the way to the Supreme Court to defend the mandate. The nuns were represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest non-profit firm. Becket President Mark Ramsey said the new rules "should be the end of a long and unnecessary culture war fight" in a Thursday press call.
"It was never the case that the United States government needed nuns to give people contraceptives. What the federal government did yesterday is something that should be welcomed by people of good faith on both sides," he said.
The Democratic attorneys general of California and Pennsylvania are now suing to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to require religious dissenters to still provide contraception. Ramsey said the new rules should undermine the attempt by those states to enforce the mandate. He said the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, was intended to protect groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor. He faulted the state lawsuits for failing to find any individuals who have suffered harm because of religious exemptions.
"They put clearly in the regulation that … we're not going to force unwilling religious employers or religious [health] plans, such as Church plans, to provide these items against their will," Ramsey said. "The states still can't find people who are harmed. I'd suggest that's because this was always a bit of a ginned-up controversy … People who work for religious institutions often share their religious beliefs."
Other conservative groups lauded the administration for making room for religious and conscience protections in the bill. March for Life's President Jeanne Mancini said the Obama White House would have forced pro-life groups to betray their very reason for existence.
"Pro-life organizations should not be forced into betraying the very values they were established to advance and this rule will allow such freedom," Mancini said in a statement. "The government has no right to demand that organizations provide health insurance plan options that explicitly contradict their mission; it is un-American."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said the new rule was "a huge victory" for conscience rights. The group said that it will personally benefit from the broader exemptions.
"The Obama administration's repeated violations of conscience were deeply contrary to the core of our nation, which was built on the foundation of respect for the individual freedoms of the people and deeply held religious beliefs," Dannenfelser said in a release. "We thank President Trump for fulfilling a core promise to voters of faith and conscience who elected him and thank [HHS] Secretary Azar for implementing these important regulations."
The rules will be published in the Federal Register on Nov. 15 and are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 14.