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Seven states sued the Obama administration Thursday over its requirement that employers cover contraception in workers' health plans.

The lawsuit, led by Nebraska's attorney general, contends that the proposed rule violates Roman Catholic institutions' rights under the First Amendment to express their beliefs and practice their religion.

The move is the first legal action by state attorneys general in the heated debate over the requirement. It follows lawsuits brought by three religiously affiliated universities and a Catholic television network, as well as actions in some state legislatures to try to avoid the federal requirement.

"The federal government's regulation is an unprecedented invasion of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and free association," the legal complaint says.

All seven attorneys general behind the lawsuit - from Nebraska, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma - are Republicans.

A White House spokesman declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending.

The rule, part of the 2010 health overhaul law, requires most employers except for churches to cover all preventive health services including contraception as part of their insurance policies, without out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

President Barack Obama announced earlier this month that the regulation would be modified to meet the concerns of religious universities, hospitals and charities.

Under the new policy, those employers could avoid directly providing contraception in their policies.

Instead, insurance companies would be required to provide contraception for participants who wanted it, without explicitly charging either the religious employer or worker.

Catholic bishops said the change still requires them to pay indirectly for something they believe to be immoral, and vowed to fight the rule. National associations representing Catholic universities, charities and hospitals had expressed cautious optimism about the change but also said they still were studying it.

Jon Bruning, the Nebraska attorney general, said in an interview that while he believed there were limits to the kinds of moral objections people could claim were constitutionally protected, "this is clearly well past the line of what the federal government should be allowed to mandate." He said he saw the contraception rule as a "sister issue" to broader challenges Republican attorneys-general have made to the health care law.

The attorneys general of South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma also signed on to the suit. They were joined by a Catholic charity, a Catholic insurer and a Catholic high school in Nebraska, as well as a nun and missionary who argued that, as private insurance holders with plans that currently specifically exclude contraception, they will have to subsidize other consumers' contraception under the new rule.

Some of the plaintiffs said they have health insurance plans that are exempt from the requirement because the plans haven't changed since the 2010 law was enacted - a wrinkle that allows the plans to duck most of the law's new requirements. Others say that they cannot qualify for that exemption.

The Department of Justice has argued that one of the other lawsuits, brought by Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, should be thrown out because the institution hadn't shown it would be harmed by the new rule, in part because it might be able to avoid the requirement by keeping its current plan.

Lawyers for the government also wrote in response to that case that the new rule proposed by the Obama administration provides an "alternative means" that addresses religious employers' objections to providing contraception.