Word is that the federal Department of Health & Human Services will soon release a new regulation to protect religious groups from the contraception/abortion mandate thrust on them in 2011 after the Affordable Care Act became law.

Remember that? Congress passed the Act in 2010 without determining exactly what health benefits had to be guaranteed in health insurance policies. They left that to federal bureaucrats, who decided that "essential" health care must include contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, and mandated that religious employers pay for them. (This is known as the "HHS mandate.")

That action triggered six years of lawsuits, regulations, limited exemptions, accommodations, modified accommodations and much uncertainty for religious entities and organizations across the country. The lawsuits, like the one filed by the Little Sisters of the Poor, continue to this day.

The new federal regulation will reportedly be an expanded exemption for faith-based ministries, protecting religious schools, hospitals and charitable agencies in addition to houses of worship. It may even extend to organizations that are not religious but whose owners have religious beliefs or moral convictions against the required coverage.

It's about time.

This protracted battle was never even necessary. I find it very hard to believe that contraception was so unreachable for women that the government had to force nuns to pay for it. Goodness, it's advertised on every bus placard I see; it's dirt cheap at the corner pharmacy; and it's pretty much free of charge under Medicaid, Title X and a slew of other government programs.

No, this battle was never really about birth control, which has already been protected by the courts. It was never about government funding of birth control, which flows abundantly.

This battle was simply about religious freedom. The original HHS mandate had compelled religious people and organizations to pay for things they consider immoral, and thus violate their Church's teachings, under threat of heavy penalties. It was a straightforward burden on the free exercise of religion. It placed a government mandate above a Gospel mandate, and was deeply offensive. It's past time for it to go.

But don't pop the champagne cork just yet. Here in New York, our state government has decided that if the federal government is going to protect religious freedom, then by gosh, they're going to push back.

The Cuomo administration has announced that health insurance companies in New York will be forced to safeguard the "essential health benefits" guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, and must specifically include coverage for contraception, abortion and abortion-inducing drugs.

In fact, both abortion and birth control are apparently so essential that the state says they must be covered without co-pays, co-insurance or deductibles, making them free of charge to anyone who wants them! Failure to provide such coverage would threaten the insurers' status in the New York health exchange, and make them ineligible for other state programs, as well. Religious employers, of course, will have no choice but to purchase the morally-offensive insurance. So, it is back to the drawing board in fighting for our religious freedom in the Empire State.

Please pray for religious liberty between June 21 and July 4, a time set aside by the U.S. bishops as the "Fortnight for Freedom." Religious liberty is a cherished and foundational right. We are obliged to defend it for ourselves and for believers of other faiths.

(Mrs. Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, which advocates on behalf of the state's bishops on issues of concern to Catholics.)