(CN) - The Trump administration on Friday rolled back a requirement under the federal health care law that employers include birth-control coverage in their health insurance plans.
The new policy, which takes effect immediately, says that any employer or insurer can ignore the birth control mandate on moral and religious grounds.
"The United States has a long history of providing conscience protections in the regulation of health care for entities and individuals with objections based on religious beliefs or moral convictions," the administration wrote in the Federal Register.
Within minutes of the White House announcing the change to the rule, the Justice Department issued a directive to all executive branch departments and agencies stating that "to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government activity."
President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandated that employers, with some exceptions for houses of worships and some companies, offer health insurance that covers birth control without a copay.
The White House says employers do not have notify the government that they are going to forego the coverage; they have only to notify their employees of the decision.
Attorneys for the Little Sisters of the Poor said the rule announced by the administration on Friday will at least temporarily protect their clients from having to provide services such the "week-after pill" in their healthcare plan against their religious beliefs.
“The new rule is a victory for common sense,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with the Becket law firm in Washington, D.C. “The previous administration pursued a needless and divisive culture war. It was always ridiculous to claim you need nuns to give out contraceptives. This new rule shows that you don’t.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor were among the religious orders who challenged the mandate as violating their right to religious freedom.
Rienzi said now that the administration has acted, “It should be easy for the courts to finalize this issue."
"For months, we have been waiting for Department of Justice lawyers to honestly admit that fact, like the President did in the Rose Garden five months ago,” the attorney said. “Now that the agencies admit the mandate was illegal, we expect the leadership of the Department of Justice will cooperate in getting a final court resolution so the Little Sisters can stop thinking about lawyers and mandates and return to spending all their energies caring for the elderly.”
Millions of women who now receive birth control with no co-payments could be affected by the move. It was swiftly condemned by women's health care advocates.
“Today’s outrageous rules by the Trump Administration show callous disregard for women’s rights, health, and autonomy, Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, in said a statement. "By taking away women’s access to no-cost birth control coverage, the rules give employers a license to discriminate against women. We will take immediate legal steps to block these unfair and discriminatory rules.”
Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards called the decision an "unacceptable attack" on birth control.
“The Trump administration just took direct aim at birth control coverage for 62 million women. This is an unacceptable attack on basic health care that the vast majority of women rely on," Richards said in a statement.
Both the National Women’s Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday they plan to challenge the rule in court. And in fact, the ACLU joined the union SEIU-UHW in suing the Trump administration, filing a federal lawsuit in San Francisco on Friday afternoon.
Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said both the rule repealing the mandate and the Justice Departmnt directive on religion are "blatantly unconstitutional."
"They both violate the separation of church and state and also discriminate against women by allowing employers to withhold a benefit that is guaranteed by law,” Amiri said.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Friday he is also prepared to “take all action, including legal action,” to defend the mandate.
Becerra said he several other attorneys general are considering filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration to have the rule tossed.
This story is developing...
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