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Contraceptive mandate takes effect amid calls to overturn, concerns about religious freedom

The mandate in President Obama’s health care law requiring employers to provide access to free contraceptive coverage took effect Wednesday -- amid efforts in Washington and across the country to reverse what critics claim is an attack on religious freedom and a financial burden on employers.

House Speaker John Boehner led the call on Capitol Hill, urging either the courts or Congress to upend the mandate.

“The Democratic-controlled Senate preemptively blocked legislation that would have reversed this attack on religious freedom,” said Boehner, R-Ohio.  “It stands because the president has refused to listen to the people and institutions that built a great nation. … Whether the administration’s attack on religious freedom is reversed through judicial action, legislative action or other means, it must be reversed.”

The mandate is for new policies and is one of several related to women’s health going into effect. It exempts churches but affects businesses with 50-plus employees -- including religious-affiliated hospitals and schools. With the law going into effect, those that don't comply could be slapped with a federal fine of $100 a day for each employee. Those fines could add up quickly for large religious-affiliated institutions that are resisting the change. 

Some of those institutions will be afforded a one-year grace period. For-profit employers will not. The Catholic Association, in a memo circulated earlier this week, said "it matters not. August 1 is D-Day for religious freedom in America." 

The Obama administration, which earlier this year modified the rule in a bid to assuage concerns, is standing by the policy. 

“President Obama is moving our country forward by giving women control over their health care,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday. “This law puts women and their doctors, not insurance companies or the government, in charge of health care decisions.”

Last month, a federal judge in Nebraska dismissed a suit by seven attorneys general trying to block the mandate, saying they failed to prove their states would suffer immediate harm once it was enacted.

However, a federal court in Colorado last week granted a temporary injunction to a family-owned air-conditioning company that challenged the mandate on religious grounds. However, the court still must rule on the contraceptive mandate.

Other lawsuits from religious-affiliated schools and organizations continue to make their way through the judicial system. 

“Last week’s court ruling provided the surest sign (the mandate) will be reversed,” Boehner claimed. Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, a group of freshman House Republicans held a press conference Wednesday to mark what they called “The Day Religious Freedom Died.”

“Goodness gracious. We're no longer the land of the free,” said Missouri Rep. Billy Long, among the 18 freshmen in the group.