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U.S. moves to ensure birth control access at religious companies

(Reuters) - The Obama administration will ensure access to birth control coverage for employees of closely held companies that object on religious grounds to contraception, one of the health benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

The move follows a Supreme Court ruling in June that allowed certain for-profit companies to refuse to cover contraceptives due to the religious beliefs of their owners.

It provides for insurers to offer contraception to employees through separate coverage.

President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law requires companies to provide free birth control coverage as a preventive service included in their health plans.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already provided an exception to non-profit groups with religious affiliations, such as certain universities or hospitals, in 2013. The exception requires insurers to cover the cost of birth control for employees of such organizations, separate from the benefits paid for by the employers.

On Friday, it proposed an extension of that rule to closely held companies in rules published in the Federal Register.

The rule is in direct response to the Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Ltd, a family-owned chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp of Pennsylvania. The two companies combined employ nearly 14,000 people. The accommodation is expected to impact at nearly 50 additional companies that have filed similar lawsuits.

At the time, the justices ruled that for-profit companies can make claims under a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was enacted to protect religious liberty. They had suggested that the government could extend the accommodation made for non-profit groups.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an advocacy group, said the move comes amid pressure on birth control access.

"Today’s proposal to stem the growing tide of corporations attempting to deny employees birth control coverage only reinforces the need for Congress to take action so that no for-profit company can come between a woman and her access to affordable birth control," the group said in a statement.

HHS also proposed on Friday an interim rule for non-profits to lay out additional ways that these companies can provide notice to the government in writing of their religious objections to providing contraception coverage.

The interim rule for non-profits is largely in response to a Supreme Court order in July, issued days after the Hobby Lobby ruling, that gave a temporary exemption to Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois. It had said that the initial process for informing insurers of their religious standing also violated their beliefs.

In the initial process, eligible non-profits had to provide a "self certification," described by one lower court judge as a "permission slip" authorizing insurance companies to provide the coverage. The challengers said that step alone violated their religious rights, regardless of whether employees ultimately receive contraception coverage.

The Becek Fund for Religious Liberty said that it was "hopeful the administration’s new rule will reflect the robust protections that have always been given to religious individuals in this country."

(Reporting by Caroline Humer; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Marguerita Choy and Leslie Adler)

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