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The Catholic Church is pressing the Obama administration to scale back a new rule on birth control. The rule would require employers to provide prescription birth control as part of their employee health insurance plans. Religious leaders say the new requirement infringes on their religious liberty.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: As with many of these political issues that generate a lot of heat, the story may be more complicated than it seems. Turns out, many Catholic universities and hospitals already provide their employees with prescription birth control. Those that do not are technically in violation of a different federal law. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

The new rules for covering contraception - which spring from last year's health law - do have a religious exception, but it's a narrow one. It doesn't cover most religious-affiliated universities, hospitals or social service agencies. That puts organizations like the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington in an untenable position, its chancellor, Jane Belford, told a House subcommittee last month.

JANE BELFORD: We're talking about whether us, as an employer, would be required to provide coverage for something that we teach is morally wrong.

ROVNER: Belford said the archdiocese's health insurance doesn't currently cover prescription contraception or sterilization, and the new rules violate the archdiocese's ability to simultaneously obey its religious dictates and provide health coverage.

BELFORD: Until now, federal law has never prevented religious employers from providing for the needs of their employees with a health plan that is consistent with the church's teachings on life and procreation.

ROVNER: But that's not exactly true, says Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the American Civil Liberties Union.

SARAH LIPTON-LUBET: Institutions like hospitals and universities, you're required to include contraception coverage in your insurance plan where you include coverage for other prescription drugs, as a matter of basic gender equality.

ROVNER: That's the result of a ruling more than a decade ago by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It found that employers whose health plans offer prescription drugs but not prescription contraceptives violated the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, a 1978 civil rights law aimed at women in the workplace.

LIPTON-LUBET: That's because prescription contraception is a form of health care that is unique to women, and the consequences of the inability to be able to access contraception, those fall primarily on women.

ROVNER: Now, the EEOC ruling isn't technically binding unless employees take action. That happened recently when some faculty members at a small Catholic college in North Carolina filed a discrimination complaint. The EEOC ruled in their favor. But it may help explain why dozens of Catholic Universities and hospitals already offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance. More than half the states also have laws that currently require it, with varying levels of religious opt-outs.

MICHELLE MICHAUD: We've always had contraceptive birth control included in our health care benefits. It's something we've come to expect for ourselves and for our family.

ROVNER: Michelle Michaud is a labor and delivery nurse at Dominican hospital in Santa Cruz, California. It's part of the Catholic Healthcare West system. A spokeswoman for the 40 hospital chain confirmed that it's offered the benefits since 1997. Michaud, who was raised Catholic but doesn't practice now, says she doesn't see any problem for a Catholic hospital to provide a benefit that conflicts with the church's teachings.

MICHAUD: Oh, no, because they don't just employ Catholics. I mean, they may be Catholic, but who they employ are not necessarily Catholic.

ROVNER: That would include people like Andrea Waters. She's the assistant manager for legal recruitment at Georgetown University Law Center. It's another Catholic institution that offers contraceptive coverage to its employees. Waters is 26, Presbyterian, and lives with her boyfriend. She says she didn't even realize that birth control might not be covered when she first took the job.

ANDREA WATERS: And then I was talking to a coworker, and they had said: Make sure you go over your health insurance plans, because some Catholic universities don't cover birth control.

ROVNER: What the Catholic Church's leaders are now seeking from President Obama is a broader exemption from the new rules, which would let them not offer - or stop offering - contraceptive coverage. They have the strong backing of Catholic members of Congress like Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy.

REPRESENTATIVE TIM MURPHY: The foundation of our nation is not to impose laws which restrict person's ability to practice their faith.

ROVNER: But Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU says this isn't a fight about religious liberty.

LIPTON-LUBET: What the bishops and their allies are asking for is the ability to impose their religious beliefs on people who don't share them.

ROVNER: A decision by the administration on the rules is expected soon.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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