While much of the nation was focused on the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the White House quietly released news that has nonetheless caught the attention of – and outraged – many Catholics and defenders of religious liberty.

In a late-week news release, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources announced it was taking “the next step” in implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – commonly called Obamacare – by finalizing a rule that requires universities offering insurance to students to add contraception coverage, regardless of the school’s moral or religious stance on the issue.

In other words, if a Catholic university like Notre Dame offers students insurance plans, those plans must also, after a one-year transition period, include birth control coverage, despite Catholic doctrine to the contrary.

Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, blasted the news as a “profound violation of religious liberty.”

“The reality is that the HHS mandate forces women like me to violate our consciences by paying a premium to an insurer who will then provide free coverage of drugs and devices that can cause abortions,” Monahan said in a statement. “At the end of the day … the mandate forces religious organizations to pay health insurance companies for coverage to their employees with drugs and services that simply violates their religious convictions.

“You may not agree with such religious beliefs,” she continued, “but freedom to exercise one’s religion is a constitutional right and should be protected by the president under the First Amendment.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to file a formal response, but conference spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh took exception to the White House “dumping” the announcement at the end of the week, when far fewer people are paying attention to the news.

“I am surprised,” Walsh told the National Catholic Register, “that such important information would be announced late Friday of St. Patrick’s Day weekend and as we prepare for the fourth Sunday of Lent.”

“Under the final rule, students will gain the same consumer protections other people with individual market insurance have, like a prohibition on lifetime limits and coverage of preventive services without cost sharing,” the White House announcement asserts. “In the same way that religious colleges and universities will not have to pay, arrange or refer for contraceptive coverage for their employees, they will not have to do so for their students who will get such coverage directly and separately from their insurer.”

“The President’s policy respects religious liberty and makes free preventive services available to women,” added HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Today’s announcement is the next step toward fulfilling that commitment.”

But opponents of the rule contend the administration’s reasoning – that it’s not the universities, but the insurers who pay for contraceptives and potentially abortifacient birth control medications – is nothing more than an “accounting gimmick.”

“Religious groups aren’t following that distorted logic,” writes Sarah Torre of The Heritage Foundation. “Among many others, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made clear that such accounting gimmicks are wholly inadequate to deal with the serious moral problem the mandate has forced upon religious groups.

“It is the expectation of HHS that an insurance company will simply ‘pool’ resources from all employers who purchase plans and use those funds to cover the cost of contraceptives,” she continues. “By the administration’s own admission, there’s no guarantee that the funds collected by insurance companies from a religious employer’s premium payments won’t then be used to cover abortion-inducing drugs and contraception.

“The administration’s ‘accommodation’ [of religious liberty] is nothing but an accounting gimmick that still leaves employers with objections to abortion drugs and contraception footing the bill for those services,” Torre concludes. “Those employers are now forced to wait on the process of unelected bureaucrats to know whether the administration intends to respect their First Amendment rights.”

The White House has established a 90-day comment period for seeking the public’s input on the new contraception insurance mandates for religious employers and universities. A very specific set of guidelines governs how the comments must be formatted and delivered.

Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing five clients who have filed suit against the mandate, does not discourage comments, but insists the White House should know better than to implement the new HHS rule in the first place.

“We do not need any more rule making. We do not need any more comment periods,” she stated. “We already settled this with that one original rule: The First Amendment.”

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