The Obama administration announced Tuesday in a court filing that it would change the way it imposes its contraception and abortifacient mandate on religious non-profits, such as Christian schools like Wheaton College and charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The administration claims it has already accommodated these non-profits, but religious leaders and scholars have argued the "accommodation" is nothing more than an accounting gimmick that still requires conscientious objectors to violate their religious and moral beliefs.

The Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision did not resolve whether or not the so-called accommodation was legal, and most observers expect that question to be resolved by a future Supreme Court case. But a senior Obama administration administration said in a written statement late Tuesday night that the administration would further modify its regulations next month (without saying precisely what would change):

"The administration believes the accommodation is legally sounds [sic], but in light of the Supreme Court order regarding Wheaton College, the Departments intend to augment their regulations to provide an alternative way for objecting non-profit religious organizations to provide notification, while ensuring that enrollees in plans of such organizations receive separate coverage of contraceptive services without cost sharing. While we are working through the details now, we expect this rulemaking to be issued within a month.”

The administration's so-called accommodation requires religious objectors to sign a form stating their objections, and then their insurers are required to directly provide objectionable drugs and services at no cost to their employees. In an open letter in 2012, a group of over 500 religious leaders and scholars condemned this regulation as an accounting trick: "It is no answer to respond that the religious employers are not 'paying' for this aspect of the insurance coverage. For one thing, it is unrealistic to suggest that insurance companies will not pass the costs of these additional services on to the purchasers. More importantly, abortion-drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives are a necessary feature of the policy purchased by the religious institution or believing individual. They will only be made available to those who are insured under such policy, by virtue of the terms of the policy."

Update: Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty pointed out in a statement that this is the "seventh time in three years that the government has retreated from its original, hard-line stance that only “houses of worship” that hire and serve fellow believers deserve religious freedom."

Yesterday, HHS told a federal appeals court that, once again, it plans to change the contraceptive mandate imposed on religious charities such as the Little Sisters of the Poor (see video). This is just the latest step in the government’s long retreat on the HHS Mandate. It is at least the seventh time in three years that the government has retreated from its original, hard-line stance that only “houses of worship” that hire and serve fellow believers deserve religious freedom.

We are encouraged that the government is reviewing its policies. We hope the government will listen to the thousands of voices that called on the government to protect religious liberty. It’s time for the government to stop fighting the 30 federal court orders—including two from the Supreme Court—protecting religious ministries from the Mandate.

Religious ministries want to focus on ministry—such as sharing their faith and serving the poor—without worrying about the threat of massive IRS penalties. They are praying that the government’s new rules will allow them to do so.

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