(Photo: SXC.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Jumping on the issue that sprung to the forefront of Republican attacks on the Obama administration, Florida Atty. Gen. Pam Bondi has joined a federal lawsuit to oppose the administration’s mandate that health insurance policies cover contraception.

Seven states filed the suit on Thursday, claiming that the requirement violates religious organizations’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to take actions that violate their beliefs.

Never mind that, in response to furious criticism from Catholic bishops and other social conservatives, the White House offered a compromise that would allow insurance companies to pay for contraceptives if religious-affiliated employers object to them. That hasn’t satisfied those who insist that only a broad exception for religious organizations will do — a move that could deny important preventative health care to some women.

Florida is joining Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska.

“Government has no business forcing religious institutions and individuals to violate their sincerely held beliefs,” Bondi said in a statement. “This lawsuit is about protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience, our most basic freedoms as Americans.”

These state governments obviously see no irony in coming to the rescue of religious organizations — by protesting government interference in religion. Catholic Social Services, Pius X Catholic High School and the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Maybe, just maybe, the issue isn’t religious liberty. Maybe it’s an opportunistic way to undermine “Obamacare.” Maybe the real enemy is birth control. You know, that thing GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum calls “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

On the same day, in Tallahassee, a state House committee approved along party lines an anti-abortion measure that would impose a 24-hour waiting period. It would also restrict ownership of new abortion clinics to doctors who specialized in abortion procedures during their residency.

During the debate, Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, filed an amendment that would prevent health insurance companies from being required to offer coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortions.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz,  a Hollywood Democrat, criticized the move as an infringement on women’s rights, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

“In every area they want choice — choice of insurance coverage, individual choice — except for women’s reproductive rights,” Schwartz, a Hollywood Democrat, said after the meeting.

Plakon withdrew his amendment because it wasn’t related to the abortion legislation, but said he hopes to bring it back on some other piece of legislation.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has already gotten into the act, introducing legislation in Congress to repeal Obama’s contraception rule. His bill would allow religious hospitals, universities and other organizations that morally oppose contraception to refuse to cover it for their employees. He called it a “common-sense bill.”

Churches and other places of worship are already exempt from the mandate, which requires that most health plans cover contraception without a co-pay beginning on Aug. 1, 2013. Rubio’s bill would go further, allowing any employer who opposes contraception “on the basis of religious belief” to refuse.

The Huffington Post noted:

Rubio, the only senator to be endorsed by the Catholic Advocate PAC, represents a state with a quarter of a million unintended pregnancies each year — almost the highest in the country. He staunchly opposes abortion rights and federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and family planning services to millions of low-income women across the country.

“It makes no sense, given Florida’s unintended pregnancy rate, to write a bill to limit women’s access to birth control,” said Judith Selzer, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates. “He should be working to expand access to reproductive health care services — that would be common sense.”

Abortion has been a highly charged wedged issue in American politics for years. What’s new is how abortion foes are now going after contraception as well.

Can this be a smart strategy, given that “99 percent of women in America, if they have ever been sexually active, use birth control. And 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control,” in the words of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richard?

There’s good reason to conclude it isn’t.

“For the sake of taking a scissors to national health care,” says Slate writer Emily Bazelon, “they’re acting as if religious liberty trumps every other value. The upshot would be to deny free contraception to millions of women. Who, presumably, vote.”