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Catholic dioceses, colleges file suit over birth control mandate

NEW YORK - Roman Catholic dioceses, schools, and other groups sued the Obama administration Monday in eight states and the District of Columbia over a federal mandate that most employers provide workers free birth control as part of their health insurance.

The 12 federal lawsuits represent the largest push against the mandate since President Obama announced the policy in January. Among the 43 groups suing are the University of Notre Dame, the Archdioceses of Washington and New York, the Michigan Catholic Conference, and the Catholic University of America.

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“We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress, and we’ll keep at it, but there’s still no fix,’’ said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Time is running out, and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now.’’

The suits bring the total number of cases now pending over the mandate to more than 30.

The Archdiocese of Boston did not join the effort, although it supports the legal challenges. “There is no need for every single diocese or other Catholic organization to sue,’’ Terrence Donilon, archdiocese spokesman, said in a statement. “The various plaintiffs reflect a broad cross-section of Catholic institutions, and together they represent the wide variety of issues, impacts, economic consequences, and divergent facts that exist among Catholic organizations nationwide.’’

The Health and Human Services Department adopted the rule to improve health care for women. Last year, an advisory panel from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government, recommended including birth control on the list of covered services, partly because it promotes maternal and child health by allowing women to space their pregnancies.

However, many faith leaders from across religious traditions protested, saying the mandate violates religious freedom.

The original rule includes a religious exemption that allows houses of worship to opt out, but keeps the requirement in place for religiously affiliated charities.

In response to the political furor, Obama offered to soften the rule so that insurers would pay for birth control instead of religious groups. However, the bishops and others have said that the accommodation doesn’t go far enough to protect religious freedom.

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Erin Shields said Monday the department does not comment on pending litigation. When Obama announced the accommodation in February, he said no religious group would have to pay for the contraceptive services or provide the services directly.

Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said in a statement that the school decided to sue “after much deliberation, discussion and efforts to find a solution acceptable to the various parties.’’ The university said that the mandate violates religious freedom by requiring many religiously affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities to comply.

“We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others,’’ Jenkins said. “We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the university when those values conflict with our religious teachings.’’

Other religious colleges and institutions have already filed federal suit over the mandate, but observers had been closely watching for Notre Dame’s next step.

The university, among the best-known Catholic schools in the country, has indicated past willingness to work with Obama, despite their differences with him on abortion and other issues.

Notre Dame came under strong criticism from bishops and others in 2009 for inviting Obama, who supports abortion rights, as a commencement speaker and presenting him with an honorary law degree.

Globe staff reporter Lisa Wangsness contributed to this report.
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