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(RNS) The Obama administration said Friday (Jan. 20) that it will not broaden the religious exemption in new rules that require employers to provide contraception coverage to employees, a move that angered religious groups and opened a high stakes election-year fight.
Instead, the White House will give faith groups a one-year extension to find a way to comply with the mandate without compromising their beliefs.

The White House privately assured religious leaders—especially those who head the Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies most affected by the employer mandate—that President Obama will be directly involved in efforts to find a workaround that would satisfy their concerns.

And church sources say the president personally conveyed the decision on Friday morning in a phone call to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Whether it will be possible to reconcile the contraception mandate with the religious dictates of faith-based employers is unclear. What is clear, however, is that religious groups intend to mount an all-out fight to defeat the new rules.

The administration is hoping to develop a system like the one used in Hawaii, which, like most states, mandates birth control coverage but mitigates it through a complex process that tries to accommodate religious employers.

Critics said the one-year window will not tamp down the issue until after the November election as the administration may have hoped, nor will it mollify religious leaders like Dolan.

“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Dolan said in a sharply worded statement released Friday.

“To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable,” Dolan added. “It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.”

Galen Carey, the Washington director for the National Association of Evangelicals, was equally critical of the regulations, which were issued by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience,” Carey said Friday. “The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”

The Catholic bishops have led the charge against Obama’s contraception policies and other issues—chiefly gay rights and same-sex marriage—and have sought to frame them as a battle to defend religious freedom from encroachments by the administration.

Those arguments have also been taken up by social conservative activists and most prominently by the Republican presidential contenders, who regularly rebuke the president over religious freedom issues.

But the contraception decision also disappointed the administration’s Catholic allies who backed the administration on other controversial issues, such as health care reform. Those Catholics, like other Christians in the progressive camp, had expected the administration would expand the exemption.

In the end, intense lobbying by abortion rights and women’s groups carried the day.

“This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, whose support for Obama’s health care reform bill helped it become law but earned her the anger of the Catholic hierarchy.

Keehan’s group represents more than 600 Catholic hospitals nationally, employing more than 750,000 people. When the HHS regulations were originally proposed last August, Keehan had dismissed the scope of the religious exemption as “the parish housekeeper exemption” because “that’s about all it covers.”

The HHS regulations define a religious employer as a nonprofit that “has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose” and “primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets” and “primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.”

That language would cover, for example, St. Mary’s Catholic Church but not St. Mary’s Catholic Hospital, or Catholic universities or social service organizations that employ and serve people of all faiths, or no faith.

In her statement on Friday, Sebelius reaffirmed that the regulations would not impact existing conscience protections that exempt religious institutions and employees on other issues, like abortion.

The new rules emerged from Obama’s health care reform law, which requires coverage (without charge) of all contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It includes emergency contraceptives like the ella and Plan B pills, as well as sterilizations procedures, that many religious groups consider immoral and unacceptable.

But while some religious leaders said they would work with the administration to try to develop a workaround policy, religious groups on all sides pledged to lobby Congress to overrule the HHS regulations by enshrining conscience protections in law.

In the midst of an election year, and with the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats, that could augur a protracted political brawl.

Experts said there is also the possibility that religious groups could win a court challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has showed that it is sympathetic to conscience concerns; earlier this month the justices unanimously upheld the “ministerial exception” that protects religious employers from being subject to many workplace discrimination statutes.

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