The Obama administration on Friday ruled that religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations, including hospitals and universities, will have to offer birth-control coverage to women employees but gave the organizations an extra year to comply.
In a decision expected to draw opposition from religious conservatives, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a final rule requiring affiliated groups to provide a broad range of services, from implanted contraceptive devices to the morning-after pill. Many do not at present.
The government's decision does not apply to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and some religiously-affiliated elementary and secondary schools, which remain exempt.
But it comes as a blow to the interests of some religious authorities.
When HHS first announced plans to adopt the birth control rule last August, it stirred protests from religious groups including the Roman Catholic Church that wanted the exemption to apply to a broader category of organizations. The Catholic Church holds contraception to be sinful.
The change, intended to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions, is part of President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, his signature domestic policy achievement, which is facing major challenges from the Supreme Court and Republicans this year as the president seeks re-election.
"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
"This proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
Religious-affiliated nonprofit organizations, many of which currently do not offer birth control coverage, have until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new rule. Other employers must begin covering the services from August 1, 2012.