Forty-three Catholic dioceses, universities and other organizations have filed 12 suits across several US states challenging a federal requirement that their health plans cover birth control.
The complaints filed Monday follow similar action by seven US states in February, and could deepen an election-year row pitting Democrats and women's rights groups against conservatives and major Catholic institutions.
According to one of the new complaints, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, the groups say President Barack Obama's landmark health overhaul infringes on religious freedom by requiring the provision of birth control.
"This lawsuit is about one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference," the archdiocese of Washington and the Catholic University of America said in the complaint.
"It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception," the complaint said, adding that nothing prevents the government from making such services more available.
"Here, however, the government seeks to require plaintiffs -- all Catholic entities -- to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing, paying for and/or facilitating access to those services," it said.
It demanded that Catholic institutions be exempted from the requirement on the basis of the constitutional separation of church and state.
"We have tried negotiation with the administration and legislation with the Congress -- but there's still no fix," New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan said.
"We applaud this courageous action by so many individual dioceses, charities, hospitals and schools across the nation."
Conservatives and groups affiliated with the Catholic Church -- which opposes contraception -- say the law forces them to pay for services they view as wrong, while supporters say birth control is vital to women's health.
Obama said in February that the government would not require religious organizations to offer free contraception on employee health plans, but placed the onus on insurance companies to cover such services.
The proposed compromise has failed to appease many critics.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule next month on the constitutionality of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama's biggest domestic achievement, and may throw out part or all of the health care overhaul, which has been challenged by 26 US states.
Source: AFP Global Edition