The Trump administration has announced a rule that would allow religious employers, nonprofits, including educational institutions, and family-owned private businesses to opt out of an Affordable Care Act requirement that health care plans provide free birth control.

Supporters welcome the move, saying it’s a necessary protection so people aren’t forced to pay for contraceptive drugs that they think are immoral.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who led an earlier effort to get the preliminary version of rule halted, calls the latest move “disappointing.”

Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, said the controversy echoes the issues in the U.S. Supreme Court case brought by Conestoga Wood Specialties in Lancaster County. Wenger was part of the legal team that represented Contestoga Wood Specialties.

In that case, the Mennonite family, which owned the company, challenged the requirement under the Affordable Care act that their health plan provide contraception coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that the federal government couldn’t force Conestoga Wood Specialties' owners to help pay for contraception for their employees if it violated their religious beliefs.

After the decision, the Obama administration modified the rule but didn’t do away with it completely, making Trump’s move necessary, Wenger said.

He called the Trump administration’s move an “appropriate protection.”

Part of the controversy stems over disputes about whether certain drugs considered birth control could more appropriately be described as abortion-inducing drugs, he said. “If the federal government forces people to violate their deeply held beliefs, things have gone too far,” he said.

A religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor, had also challenged the contraception mandate. Their supporters cheered the move as well.

“For the last four years the Little Sisters have said that the government has other ways to provide services like the week-after pill without involving nuns. Today, at long last, the federal government finalized the rule providing a religious exemption from the HHS Mandate to the Little Sisters and other religious non-profits,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, a religious liberty law firm. "This long unnecessary culture war is now almost over — all that is left is for state governments to admit that there are many ways to deliver these services without nuns, and the Little Sisters can return to serving the elderly poor in peace.”

Last December, Shapiro got a federal judge to issue a nationwide injunction, halting the Trump administration’s preliminary rule to create the exceptions for the birth control mandate. The rules announced this week are the final versions of the proposal.

“I’m disappointed that the Trump administration did not heed the direction of two federal judges and is instead trying — again — to deny women access to fundamental health care,” Shapiro said in a statement provided Friday. “We’re assessing the new rules’ impact — which at first glance seem even worse than the prior rules — and I will keep fighting every day to protect women’s rights.”

Civil liberties and women’s advocacy groups criticized the Trump administration’s move to undo the birth control mandate.

“Allowing employers and universities to use their religious beliefs to block employees’ birth control coverage isn’t religious liberty. It's discrimination,” according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said the move doesn’t make sense.

“Birth control prevents abortions,” she said, calling the federal officials “hypocritical” for saying they oppose abortion while also access to contraception.

She added that most people don’t even consider access to contraception to be controversial.

The birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act “benefited more than 62 million women,” according to Planned Parenthood.

The organization pointed to a 2015 study published in Health Affairs that found women saved $1.4 billion that they would have paid in co-pays for birth control pills in the first year that the contraception mandate was in place.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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