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Florida joins suit over contraception requirement

TALLAHASSEE — Seven states, including Florida, have decided to take on President Barack Obama's mandate that health insurance policies include coverage for contraceptives.

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court Thursday, asserts that the requirement violates religious institutions' First Amendment rights by forcing them to promote a message that contradicts their religious principles.

The mandate has been strongly opposed by Catholic bishops and an array of religious entities. The state of Nebraska is leading the lawsuit, which also lists as plaintiffs a Catholic school, two Catholic organizations, two individuals, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said requiring religious organizations to include contraceptions, sterilizations and related services as part of health care coverage violates religious protections in the U.S. Constitution.

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

The Obama administration has defended its decision, saying the rule assures that a woman can have access to free contraception regardless of where she works or whom she works for.

Bowing to critics, the president offered a compromise this month that allows insurance companies to pick up the cost of providing contraceptives on behalf of religious employers. However, opponents insist that the only acceptable solution is a broad exemption for religious organizations.

The lawsuit, which lists three federal agencies and agency heads as defendants but not Obama, seeks to keep the government from enforcing the new rule.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which has been handling the response to the issue and is listed as one of the defendants, said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Meanwhile, Congress and several state legislatures, including Florida's, may take action before a judge ever rules on the case.

During discussion on anti-abortion legislation Thursday, a Florida House committee broached the contraception debate. Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, filed an amendment that aimed to prevent health insurance companies from being required to offer coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortions.

Plakon withdrew the amendment but Rep. Elaine Schwartz criticized the move as an infringement on women's rights.

"In every area they want choice — choice of insurance coverage, individual choice — except for women's reproductive rights," Schwartz, a Hollywood Democrat, said after the meeting.

Plakon withdrew his amendment because it wasn't related to the abortion legislation, per legislative rules, and he didn't want to jeopardize the status of the anti-abortion bill. He hopes to attach the proposal to some other piece of legislation.

Congress is also considering legislation, sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to repeal Obama's contraception rule.

Staff writers Katie Sanders and Brittany Davis contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida joins suit over contraception requirement 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 10:11pm]

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