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Religious groups vow further legal fight after contraceptive rule released

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Prescription contraceptives for women sit on the counter of a drug store on Aug. 1, 2011, in Los Angeles, California. …

Religious organizations on Friday rejected the Obama administration's final compromise for how faith-based groups must provide contraceptive coverage to employees.

The new rule, released on Friday after months of negotiations, says a third-party administrator will contact the employees of nonprofit religious organizations to offer and pay for contraceptive coverage for them. Churches and religious orders are exempt from the rule, but religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other organizations must provide contraceptive care as a free preventive measure under President Barack Obama's health care law. The administration rejected requests from for-profit groups owned by religious employers for a similar exemption.

A religious liberty group suing the administration on behalf of dozens of organizations said the rule does nothing to alleviate their clients' concerns. "They're forced to be the ones who provide access to the employees who obtain abortions," Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told reporters. He said even if the groups do not pay for any of the contraception, they are still the "gatekeepers" of the service because their employees ultimately receive birth control through their insurance. Rassbach said he expects more organizations will file suit in the coming days.

The Becket Fund is also helping more than 30 for-profit companies sue over the rule, on the grounds it violates employers' religious liberty to provide contraception. Hobby Lobby, a privately owned crafts-store chain, won a preliminary court victory this week when the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower court to reconsider the store's request for an injunction against the federal government. David Green, founder and CEO of the 500-store chain, said providing the "morning after" pill to his employees violates his belief that life begins at conception. Studies have shown that pills like Plan B work by preventing ovulation, not by blocking implantation of a fertilized egg. (Hobby Lobby's health care plan does provide birth control.)

Groups must begin providing the coverage at the start of their next plan year, as soon as Monday, July 1.

“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

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