AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Attorney General William Schneider has decided not to sign onto a lawsuit filed this week that alleges the Obama administration has violated the First Amendment by requiring employers to provide contraception coverage.
That lawsuit, filed Thursday by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, was backed by six other state attorneys general in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. All are Republicans.
“This regulation forces millions of Americans to choose between following religious convictions and complying with federal law,” Bruning, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Nebraska, said in a statement. “This violation of the First Amendment is a threat to every American, regardless of religious faith.”
Earlier this month, Maine’s attorney general did join 12 others in signing a letter that urged President Barack Obama to reverse his policy position that requires religiously affiliated employers to provide birth control to workers.
In a statement provided to media members after news broke that Schneider signed that Feb. 10 letter, Maine’s attorney general also questioned the constitutionality of the president’s stance.
“A recently proposed federal mandate requiring religious employers that provide health insurance coverage to their employees to include coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and related services fails to preserve a sufficient exemption for religious affiliated organizations and is therefore unconstitutional,” he said. “As a result of this federal mandate, many religiously affiliated organizations could now find that they have to act contrary to their religious beliefs and provide for free contraceptive coverage in their health plans.”
Asked Friday whether he had changed his mind, Schneider said he had not.
“But I think it’s premature to file a lawsuit because [Obama] has shown a willingness to amend his position,” the attorney general said in a phone interview.
A number of womens’ groups criticized Schneider earlier this week for signing the original letter. Some accused him of reversing his own position for political purposes.
In 1999, when Schneider was a member of the Maine House of Representatives, he voted in favor of Maine’s contraception equity law. Since then, Maine law has required all health insurance policies that provide prescription drug coverage to include contraceptive coverage, with a limited exception for churches and religiously affiliated schools.
Schneider said Maine’s law is different than the Obama administration’s recent policy position.
Some Democratic lawmakers on Friday called on Schneider to stay out of the national debate over contraception. A letter signed by 32 House and Senate members was sent to the attorney general on Friday.
“Maine lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the idea that women should have equal access to birth control as a matter of health and common sense,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain of Orono. “Clearly, the attorney general’s decision to join the national effort is inconsistent with Maine law and his vote.”
The Maine Women’s Lobby also has gathered more than 800 signatures this week asking the attorney general to reconsider. Charlotte Warren, spokeswoman for the women’s lobby, said Friday that she was pleased to hear Schneider decided to keep Maine out of the lawsuit.
“I hope part of it had to do with hearing from Mainers,” she said.
Schneider responded to female Democrats late in the day Friday with his own letter and stood by his decision.
“I am distressed to see you joining in the political attacks on my legal decision to join other attorneys general around the country,” he wrote. “It is my duty to try to stop unconstitutional rules that will affect Mainers.”
Schneider said he understands that every time he signs his name to something, there is likely to be backlash from one group or another.
“It’s become a bigger part of the job than I expected,” he said. “We have opportunities almost every day, but I really try hard to assess each case on a legal basis.”