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Seven states sue government over contraceptives mandate

By Tom Cohen, CNN
February 24, 2012 -- Updated 0054 GMT (0854 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Religious freedom is the underlying issue, Texas attorney general says
  • The issue has become a political flashpoint in a presidential election year
  • The lawsuit accuses the government of violating the First Amendment
  • The Obama administration adjusted its policy in an attempt at compromise

Washington (CNN) -- Seven states on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the federal government requirement that religious employers offer health insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and other birth control services.

The issue has become a political flashpoint in a presidential election year, and the lawsuit by attorneys general from Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Florida and Texas was certain to keep it prominent.

Private plaintiffs joining the seven states included Pius X Catholic High School, Catholic Social Services, Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America and private citizens Stacy Molai and Sister Mary Catherine.

The 25-page lawsuit named the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; the U.S. Department of the Treasury and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; and the U.S. Department of Labor and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis as defendants.

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It alleges a violation of the First Amendment and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying that the requirement for employees at church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals to receive health coverage for contraceptives and other birth control services contravened constitutionally protected religious freedom.

"Government has no business forcing religious institutions and individuals to violate their sincerely held beliefs," Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement Thursday. "This lawsuit is about protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience, our most basic freedoms as Americans."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the government rule under the health care reform law passed in 2010 "compels people of faith to act contrary to their convictions."

"The very first amendment to our Constitution was intended to protect against this sort of government intrusion into our religious convictions," Abbott said.

Abbott and Bondi are Republicans.

Officials from the White House and the Department of Justice had no comment on the pending litigation.

However, it is not the first court challenge to the Obama administration's new mandate on contraceptive coverage.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has filed a series of lawsuits, arguing that even the revised polices on contraception access would constitute a violation of their clients' faith.

Last week, the Justice Department urged judges to stay out of the controversy until a compromise can be worked out.

At issue is whether religious institutions should be exempt from mandated employee coverage for birth control and other reproductive care.

The administration announced a proposed compromise in the dispute earlier this month.

Under its new plan, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals would not be forced to offer contraception coverage to their employees. Insurers will be required, however, to offer complete coverage for free to women who work at such institutions.

In announcing the proposed compromise, Obama said "no woman's health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes." He added that "the principle of religious liberty" was also at stake, and "as a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right."

Female employees at churches themselves will have no guarantee of any contraception coverage -- a continuation of current law.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced Obama's compromise soon after the president's announcement, saying the proposal raises "serious moral concerns," according to a statement posted on its website.

Half of all Americans polled say they oppose the Obama administration's new policy, according to a CNN/ORC International survey.

The final version of the contraception requirement goes into effect next January. The administration said that under a safe harbor provision, no group can be forced to provide birth control at least until year's end.

CNN's Bill Mears, Susan Candiotti and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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