updated 2/23/2012 6:49:05 PM ET 2012-02-23T23:49:05

Seven states asked a federal judge Thursday to block an Obama administration mandate that requires birth control coverage for employees of religious-affiliated hospitals, schools and outreach programs.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska, alleges that the new rule violates the First Amendment rights of groups that object to the use of contraceptives.

It marks the first legal challenge filed by states.

The rule, announced as part of the federal health care law, has come under fire from religious groups that object to the use of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. In response to the criticism, Obama administration officials have said they will shift the requirement from the employers to health insurers themselves.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys general from Nebraska, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Three Nebraska-based groups — Catholic Social Services, Pius X Catholic High School and the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America — are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Story: Why birth control is pushing political buttons

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate, said the administration's regulation "forces of millions of Americans to choose between following religious convictions and complying with federal law.

"We will not stand idly by while out constitutionally guaranteed liberties are discarded by an administration that has sworn to uphold them," he said.

The lawsuit alleges that the rule will effectively force religious employers and organizations to drop health insurance coverage, which will raise enrollment in state Medicaid programs and increase patient numbers at state-subsidized hospitals and medical centers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is named as a defendant. A phone message left with the agency on Thursday wasn't immediately returned.

The contentious issue has pushed social issues to the forefront in a presidential election year that has been dominated by the economy. Issues such as abortion, contraception and requirements of President Barack Obama's health care law have the potential to galvanize the Republicans' conservative base, which is critical to voter turnout in the presidential and congressional races.

The new policy has angered some religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, who say the requirement would force them to violate their stances against contraception. It has also drawn a sharp response from congressional Republicans.

Obama administration officials have said they don't want to abridge anyone's religious freedom, but want to give women access to important preventive care. Supporters of the rule, including the ACLU and women's advocacy groups, say the measure is about female health.

Republican lawmakers in a handful of states have seized on the contentious issue, presenting bills that would allow insurance companies to ignore the federal rules. Measures in Idaho, Missouri and Arizona would expand the exemptions to secular insurers or businesses that object to covering contraception, abortion or sterilization.

Officials have said the Obama administration's ruling was carefully considered, after reviewing more than 200,000 comments from interested parties and the public. The one-year extension, they said, responds to concerns raised by religious employers about making adjustments.

Administration officials stress that individual decisions about whether to use birth control, and what kind, remain in the hands of women and their doctors.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Law student advocates for contraception coverage

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    >> the price of gas isn't the only contentious campaign issue tonight. birth control seems to have become as one headline writer put it today, the third rail of american politics right now and this happened really out of nowhere. in fact, it was a question about birth control that got the biggest audience response at last night's gop debate in arizona. nbc's kelly o'donnell has more on the politics of birth control and womens health.

    >> reporter: protests today in richmond, virginia.

    >> our bodies! our lives!

    >> reporter: a flashpoint in the political fight over government's place in women's health and reproduction. so provocative the mere mention of birth control prompted boos.

    >> i don't support that.

    >> reporter: at the republican debate.

    >> just because i'm talking about it doesn't mean i want a government program to fix it.

    >> reporter: and rare applause at a democrats-only staged hearing today. set off by the outraged democrats vented when republicans called only men to testify last week on religious institutions and birth control .

    >> we've heard from over 300,000 people saying we want womens' voices to be heard.

    >> democrats invited one woman, a georgetown law student to talk about hardships for some women that don't have insurance that covers birth control .

    >> without her taking birth control a massive sift the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary.

    >> reporter: more than 11 million women use birth control , the most common method of contraception. some states restrict abortion and funding for womens health programs. in virginia late today after protefrts and a national spotlight, legislators changed a controversial bill that would have required an invasive procedure before a woman could have an abortion. some republican voters want this debate.

    >> social issues should play a very high priority in the campaign.

    >> reporter: analysts say these social issues are more likely to help democrats.

    >> this issue has given democrats at every level an issue to talk to women voters about and particularly independent women .

    >> reporter: making women without party ties the most sought-after voters this year. kelly o'donnell, nbc news, washington.

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