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Obama administration asks for delay in legal fight over contraception coverage

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 5:14 PM EST, Fri February 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • White House asks courts to say out of contraception fight until a compromise is reached
  • Religious institutions are concerned over mandated coverage for their employees
  • Obama administration says enforcement won't begin until next January, buying time in the dispute

Washington (CNN) -- An ongoing political dispute over the Obama administration's new mandate on contraceptive coverage has reached the federal courts, with the Justice Department on Friday urging judges to stay out of the controversy until a compromise can be worked out.

At issue is whether religious institutions should be exempt from mandated employee coverage for birth control and other reproductive care. A North Carolina college has sued, saying it should not be obligated to provide such services in violation of its religious beliefs.

But the Justice Department told a federal judge in Washington on Friday that any coverage requirements won't be enforced until next January, essentially buying time to settle any differences between the parties out of court.

"Students may receive health coverage either by contracting directly with an insurance issuer (in which case plaintiff [college] does not itself provide the insurance), or from plaintiff through a self insured plan," said the filing. "In either event, plaintiff is under no federal obligation to provide its own plan that covers contraception or other recommended preventive services, and thus lacks standing" to sue.

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The president announced a compromise last week in the dispute. Under the new plan, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals would not be forced to offer contraception coverage to their employees. Insurers will be required, however, to offer complete coverage free of charge to women who work at such institutions. Female employees at churches themselves will have no guarantee of any contraception coverage-- a continuation of current law.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Obama's compromise last week soon after the president's announcement, saying the proposal raises "serious moral concerns," according to a statement posted on its website.

Half of all Americans polled say they oppose the Obama administration's new policy, according to a new CNN/ORC national survey.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has filed a series of lawsuits, arguing that even the revised polices on contraception access would constitute a violation of their clients' faith.

Belmont Abbey College is a Catholic-affiliated liberal arts institution near Charlotte, North Carolina. The school claims that under current law, they are not free from the "religious exemption" and would be forced to provide contraception to its employees and students. They say the law, even with the compromise offered by the White House, does not address their First Amendment concerns.

The final version of the contraception requirement goes into effect next January. The administration argues Belmont and other institutions may be "grandfathered" out of current compliance, and that the school lacks "standing" or authority to press its claims now in federal court.

The administration said that under a safe harbor provision, no group can be forced to provide birth control at least until year's end. Federal officials said they are confident they could work out legal and philosophical differences to ensure broad compliance.

The case is Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius (1:11-cv-1989).

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