Authors: By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- The U.S. Justice Department is asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by several states that challenges a new federal health care rule that requires contraception coverage for employees of church-affiliated hospitals, schools and outreach programs.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who is leading the suit, scoffed at the request Tuesday, noting that the department has pushed the rule's enforcement deadline to next year - after the November elections - and hasn't detailed how it plans in the meantime to address religious groups' concerns.
"Regardless of the continuous promises of change offered by this administration, the results are nothing more than bait and switch," the Republican, who is running for U.S. Senate, said.
Department lawyers argued for the lawsuit's dismissal in court papers filed late Monday, noting that they have agreed not to enforce the rule until August 2013 and have promised to work with religious groups.
The lawsuit alleges that the new rule violates the First Amendment rights of groups that object to the use of contraceptives.
It was filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska by Bruning and his fellow GOP attorneys general from Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Three Nebraska-based groups - Catholic Social Services, Pius X Catholic High School and the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America - are also plaintiffs, as are a nun and a female missionary.
The rule was announced as part of the federal health care law - and came under fire in February from religious groups that object to the use of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. In response to the criticism, President Barack Obama's administration has said it would shift the requirement from the employers to health insurers themselves.
The lawsuit alleges that the rule will effectively force religious employers and organizations to drop health insurance coverage, which will raise enrollment in state Medicaid programs and increase patient numbers at state-subsidized hospitals and medical centers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is named as a defendant.
In court papers, Justice Department lawyers said the groups have failed to show that they face the immediate threat of having to offer the coverage. They said delaying the enforcement provides a "safe harbor" for concerned religious groups while the rules are being changed, and the department will grandfather in many existing coverage plans.
The contraception rule is among several social issues at the political forefront in a presidential election year. Issues such as abortion, contraception and requirements of President Barack Obama's health care law have the potential to galvanize the Republicans' conservative base, which is critical to voter turnout in the presidential and congressional races.
Obama administration officials have said they don't want to abridge anyone's religious freedom, but want to give women access to important preventive care. Supporters of the rule, including women's advocacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, say the measure is about female health.
Administration officials have said the rule was adopted after careful consideration, including the review more than 200,000 comments from interested parties and the public. The rule would leave individual decisions about whether to use birth control, and what kind, in the hands of women and their doctors.