In an op-ed printed in USA Today yesterday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius takes on accusations that a recent federal decision requiring health insurers to cover contraception as a preventive service is an attack on religious groups.

Religious groups have been very upset — even threatening legal action — ever since the federal government announced it was adding a mandate to the Affordable Care Act that requires health insurers to cover birth control without co-payments.

While the mandate provides an exception for religious employers, religious groups have framed the debate as one about religious freedom. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced a bill to overturn the decision and titled it the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Sebelius writes in her op-ed that accusations claiming that the administration is attacking religious freedom are false.

Sebelius writes:

The public health case for making sure insurance covers contraception is clear. But we also recognize that many religious organizations have deeply held beliefs opposing the use of birth control.

That’s why in the rule we put forward, we specifically carved out from the policy religious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith. This exemption includes churches and other houses of worship, and could also include other church-affiliated organizations.

In choosing this exemption, we looked first at state laws already in place across the country. Of the 28 states that currently require contraception to be covered by insurance, eight have no religious exemption at all.

The religious exemption in the administration’s rule is the same as the exemption in Oregon, New York and California.

It’s important to note that our rule has no effect on the longstanding conscience clause protections for providers, which allow a Catholic doctor, for example, to refuse to write a prescription for contraception. Nor does it affect an individual woman’s freedom to decide not to use birth control. And the president and this administration continue to support existing conscience protections.

This is not an easy issue. But by carving out an exemption for religious organizations based on policies already in place, we are working to strike the right balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing women’s access to critical preventive health services.

Since the decision was first announced, Catholic groups have been vehemently opposed to the move. Catholic bishops, in particular, have demanded that the policy be stricken “in its entirety” or that the rule allow a broad exemption for religious objectors. Catholic leaders have said the existing exemption is “too limited” and might leave out Catholic hospitals.

But the federal government stood its ground and maintained an exemption only for religious employers. Many women, who are not all Catholic, receive health care from groups such as Catholic charities.

According to research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, about “98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods banned by the church” and polling found that 66 percent of Americans agreed with the federal government’s recent decision to include birth control in its list of preventative services when the decision was first announced.

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