Catholic bishops threaten lawsuit over administration’s birth control mandate

The Catholic Church's U.S. hierarchy warned Tuesday that without quick action by Congress, it will sue the Obama administration for mandating that insurance plans provide birth control to women without a co-pay.

"[F]orcing individual and institutional stakeholders to sponsor and subsidize an otherwise widely available product over their religious and moral objections serves no legitimate, let alone compelling, government interest," lawyers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a letter to federal regulators.

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Several small Catholic universities have already filed suit over the policy, which prompted a firestorm when it was announced in January and promises to remain an issue throughout the election season.

The bishops group and its leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, have led calls to rescind the mandate but threatened court action Tuesday in light of "approaching regulatory deadlines."

"Absent prompt congressional attention to this infringement on fundamental civil liberties, we believe the only remaining recourse … is in the courts," lawyers for the group wrote.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said in February that President Obama takes objectors' concerns "very seriously" and is "very aware of and engaged in this issue."

"We are very sensitive and understand some of the concerns that have been expressed," Carney told reporters.

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"We're not trying to win an argument here ... We're trying to implement a policy that will affect millions of women."

The bishops' notice came in 20 pages of comments submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on a forthcoming rule to accommodate certain religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals, that were not exempted from the original mandate. 

The new accommodation will likely cover explicitly religious organizations, but not any employer who personally objects to birth control.

Lawyers for the bishops group called the likely arrangement insufficient.

Individual employers that hold "a pro-life stance … will face a choice," the lawyers argued.

"They can drop out of the health insurance marketplace altogether, or offer or provide the objectionable coverage."