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Lansing — Less than a week after taking office, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is challenging federal rules that allow employers to refuse contraceptive insurance coverage to employees on religious or moral grounds.

Nessel joined eight other states in support of two federal lawsuits challenging U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' rules issued in 2017 exempting moral or religious groups from following an Affordable Care Act mandate that required the groups to provide contraception coverage for employees.  

In a reversal of Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s stance on the issue, Nessel said she joined the lawsuit because the state has a compelling interest in “protecting the health, well-being and economic security of our residents.”

“We are committed to ensuring a strong and robust regulatory framework that makes contraception widely available and as affordable as possible to advance educational opportunity, workplace equality and financial empowerment for women, to improve the health of women and children, and to reduce health care-related costs for individuals, families, and the State of Michigan,” Nessel said in a statement.

Michigan religious groups, colleges and Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Farms opposed the mandate when it was the law under Democratic President Barack Obama. During his tenure, Schuette filed an amicus brief in support of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby when it was fighting the mandate.

In a 2014 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said the contraception mandate imposed “a substantial burden” on the exercise of the religious beliefs of company owners.

The Michigan Catholic Conference, which was one of the groups opposing the Obamacare mandate, will monitor the lawsuit due to the "legal relief Catholic entities in Michigan have already secured from the federal courts," spokesman David Maluchnik said. 

Nessel noted that, until now, the state had declined to join any lawsuits opposing the Trump administration's rules. But the state is "on firm ground" as it joins Massachusetts and several other states in “pushing back on the federal government,” she said.

The other states also have Democratic attorney generals.

The amicus briefs Nessel is joining are being led by the state of Massachusetts and filed in two lawsuits involving several states and initiated by California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

California's lawsuit, which includes other states as plaintiffs, is filed against the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as well as The Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C., and the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. 

The lawsuits challenge the legality of the rules and argue the exemptions could leave "millions of women across the nation" without contraceptive coverage should their employers opt out for religious or moral reasons. 

In Michigan, according to the brief, companies expected to drop contraceptive coverage for religious or moral reasons include Hobby Lobby stores, Autocam Medical, Midwest Fastener Corp. and Mersino Management.

The amicus brief filed Monday requests a nationwide injunction on the rules announced by the departments of Labor, Treasury and HHS because of the potential threat to the "health and well-being" of residents throughout the country. The filing also argues that the rules will cost states millions to replace contraceptive care that would otherwise by provided by employers.

The nationwide injunction "is especially warranted in this case, where the damage caused by the rules will transcend state lines," the brief said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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