WASHINGTON (AP) -- Seeking to quell a politically charged controversy, the Obama administration announced new measures Friday to allow religious nonprofits and some companies to opt out of paying for birth control for female employees while still ensuring those employees have access to contraception.<br />
Even so, the accommodations may not fully satisfy religious groups who oppose any system that makes them complicit in providing coverage they believe is immoral.<br />
Effective immediately, the U.S. will start allowing faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals to notify the government - rather than their insurers - that they object to birth control on religious grounds. A previous accommodation offered by the Obama administration allowed those nonprofits to opt out of paying for birth control by submitting a document called Form 700 to their insurers, but Roman Catholic bishops and other religious plaintiffs argued just submitting that form was like signing a permission slip to engage in evil.<br />
In a related move, the administration announced plans to allow for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby Inc. to start using Form 700. The Supreme Court ruled in June that the government can't force companies like Hobby Lobby Inc. to pay for birth control, sending the administration scrambling for a way to ensure their employees can still get birth control one way or another at no added cost.<br />
The dual decisions mark the Obama administration's latest effort to address a long-running conflict that has pitted the White House against churches and other religious groups. The dispute has sparked dozens of legal challenges, fueling an election-year debate about whether religious liberty should trump a woman's access to health care options.<br />
"What these rules do is help ensure that women have access to contraceptive coverage" while respecting religious beliefs, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.<br />
Yet the latest proposals will likely run up against the same objections, because they still enable employees to receive contraception through their health plans - one of a range of preventive services required under President Barack Obama's health care law.
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
House Republican leaders rallied around one of their own, Whip Steve Scalise, on Tuesday after he said he regrets speaking 12 years ago to a white supremacist organization and condemns the views of such groups.
President Vladimir Putin's chief political foe was convicted along with his brother on Tuesday in a fraud case widely seen as a vendetta by the Kremlin, triggering one of Russia's boldest anti-government demonstrations in years.
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