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Proposal has contraceptive opt-out for religious groups

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration proposed new rules Friday that would guarantee widespread access to contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act, but seemed unlikely to head off legal battles that could return a part of the health care law to the Supreme Court.

The regulations allow religious nonprofit organizations that morally object to contraceptives to not offer that benefit for their employees. But their workers would receive a stand-alone private insurance policy providing birth control coverage at no cost.

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Some religious groups criticized the proposed rules. For more than a year, they have mounted a high-profile protest and filed dozens of lawsuits against the contraceptive mandate, arguing that it is a violation of their religious freedom.

These nonprofits worry that their premium dollars might help pay for the stand-alone plans. Separately, some private businesses owned by individuals with strong religious objections to the mandate have sued because they don’t want to provide contraceptive coverage to their workers.

‘‘We were extremely disappointed with this inadequate proposal,’’ said Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. His group represents both private employers and faith-based nonprofits. ‘‘This is not what many of our clients were hoping and praying for: That they would be given a way of not being subject to the mandate at all.’’

The required coverage of contraceptives has proved a vexing challenge for the Obama administration. Its attempt to strike a satisfying balance between reproductive health coverage and religious freedom became a key campaign issue.

Women’s health groups, which have been vociferous advocates of the contraceptives provision, quickly lauded the administration’s decision.

‘‘Today’s draft regulation affirms yet again the Obama administration’s commitment to fulfilling the full promise of its historic contraception policy,’’ NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said. ‘‘Thanks to this commitment, most American women will get birth control coverage without extra expense. Increased access to birth control is a huge win for women.’’

The Affordable Care Act initially required almost all employers to cover contraceptives as part of a larger package of preventive health benefits for women. Some religious groups opposed the requirement, which they argued would force them to go against their beliefs. Houses of worship, such as churches and synagogues, would be exempt.

Last February, the administration announced an accommodation for faith-based nonprofits: Insurance companies would cover the cost of contraceptive coverage.

Religious leaders derided the policy as an ‘‘accounting gimmick,’’ arguing that the premiums they pay to health insurers could end up paying for the contraceptives they oppose.

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