AUGUSTA — Maine Attorney General William Schneider has joined the critics of a federal mandate that religious organizations provide their employees with health insurance for contraceptives.

Schneider and 12 other attorneys general sent a letter to the Obama administration Feb. 10 threatening to fight the mandate, which was amended the same day.

That’s a disappointing reversal by Schneider, says the Maine Women’s Lobby. As a state legislator in 1999, Schneider voted in favor of a similar mandate for contraceptive coverage that remains in state law.

The Maine Women’s Lobby is now asking its supporters to sign a petition urging the attorney general to reconsider his latest position. “It is a reversal of what he voted for in 1999 and what we have come to expect and appreciate in Maine,” said Charlotte Warren, the group’s associate director.

Schneider’s stand, and the backlash, draws Maine into the national clash between the federal government’s effort to expand health care coverage and the freedom of religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, to uphold teachings against contraception. The Republican presidential candidates have led the criticism of what they call an assault on religious freedom.

The federal health care reform law adopted in 2010 required that certain preventive services be covered by all health insurance plans. The Obama administration said contraception and sterilization would be among those services, but churches with moral objections would not be required to offer that coverage to their employees.

Church-affiliated nonprofits, colleges and other organizations are not exempt.

After the Catholic Church and others protested that the exemption was too narrow, the administration amended the mandate.

With the change, the employees of nonprofit religious-affiliated organizations would be insured for contraceptives, but their employers would not be required to pay higher premiums for that coverage. Insurers would cover any cost, although the theory is that providing access to contraceptives — and preventing pregnancies — would save them money.

Schneider signed onto the protest letter with Republican attorneys general from Nebraska, Texas, North Carolina and nine other states. It was sent Feb. 10 and announced at the time by some attorneys general, but not by Schneider’s office. The Maine Attorney General’s Office released the letter Wednesday, after the mandate was criticized by the Maine Women’s Lobby.

“The proposed regulations would compel religious organizations, hospitals, universities and social service entities to subsidize contraceptive products and services which clearly violate their religious beliefs,” the letter says.

Maine law already requires those organizations to provide the services, unless they are self-insured. And Schneider voted for the law while he was in the House of Representatives.

A spokeswoman for Schneider said that Maine’s law and the initial federal mandate were not identical, and that the federal exemption — which applies to churches — is more narrow.

But Maine’s exemption isn’t much broader. State law requiring contraceptive coverage exempts churches and religious elementary and secondary schools.

Schneider did not respond to a request for an interview, but did issue a written statement Wednesday saying the Maine law he supported has a broader exclusion for religious employers.

“Maine recognized that state mandated health insurance coverage had to be balanced with basic First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech and association,” he said. “A recently proposed federal mandate … fails to preserve a sufficient exemption for religious affiliated organizations and is therefore unconstitutional.”

The letter that Schneider signed was based on the federal mandate before it was amended, said Brenda Kielty, Schneider’s spokeswoman.

It isn’t clear whether the amendment allowing religious-affiliated nonprofits to opt out of paying for the coverage changes Schneider’s view of the federal mandate. But his statement on Wednesday indicates he is still opposed.

Maine’s law had bipartisan support in 1999 and has never been challenged, Warren said.

While disappointed by Schneider’s stand, Warren said it is even more disappointing that access to contraception has returned as a political issue.

“We’re fighting against a reversal of decades of progress in women’s health,” she said.

John Richardson — 620-7016

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