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Obama rule change would accommodate objection to mandate

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Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 1:00 p.m.

Religious organizations opposed to President Obama's requirements that they cover birth control in their employee health insurance plans said they need more time to decide whether proposed rule changes announced on Friday will ease their objections.

Facing a wave of lawsuits, including one from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, over what government can tell religious groups to do, the Obama administration said it is opening a way for faith-based and religious institutions to avoid a mandate in the Affordable Health Care Act that requires health insurance programs to cover contraception.

“Today the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals.”

Bishop David Zubik of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said it would be “premature for me to celebrate, negotiate or condemn the proposed new mandate.”

“There have been conflicting reports about whether or not our religious freedom concerns have been addressed adequately, so we need to study this carefully and thoroughly,” Zubik said. “I can only hope that this has become for everyone a lesson in what religious freedom — and religious expression — truly means to all of us.”

In May, the diocese, Catholic Charities and the Catholic Cemeteries Association of Pittsburgh filed one of about 40 cases brought nationwide seeking to declare unconstitutional the portion of the federal health care mandate requiring them to pay for contraception.

The Catholic diocese argued that the government infringed on its religious freedom by demanding that it facilitate and, in some cases, pay for abortion-inducing drugs, birth control and other services that violate its beliefs.

U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry dismissed the lawsuit in November. His decision is under appeal in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bridget Fare, a spokeswoman for Duquesne University, said its legal team is reviewing the changes that were announced. The Catholic school was among the institutions that criticized the initial mandate.

“We're hopeful that the changes that have been proposed will allow us to provide insurance without compromising our religious beliefs,” Fare said.

The university will submit comments to the Department of Health and Human Services.The public comment period for the proposed changes is open through April 8.

Some women's advocates were pleased with the proposed changes.

“The important thing for us is that women employees can count on getting insurance that meets their needs, even if they're working for a religiously affiliated employer,” said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.

Dr. David Stevens of the Christian Medical Association called the revised version of the law unacceptable because it “still flouts the First Amendment.”

“Since when does the government get to pick and choose which groups will get to enjoy First Amendment protections?” Stevens wrote in a statement. “It would appear that the administration is trying to diffuse the pressure from federal courts around the country by throwing a sop to religious groups.”

Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of the Diocese of Greensburg issued a statement saying that although U.S. bishops are “closely studying the revised regulations,” concerns he raised in a pastoral letter in October have not changed.

“My concern remains the same, that the government not be allowed to force the Catholic Church and its affiliated institutions to furnish its employees with health insurance coverage that is morally and religiously objectionable,” Brandt said.

Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or Staff writer Salena Zito and The Associated Press contributedto this report.

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