WASHINGTON (CNS) — Thirteen state attorneys general asked the federal government to expand the religious exemption under the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to private companies.

They said in a March 26 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that the exemption should be extended beyond religious institutions.

Business owners who object on religious grounds to contraception should not be forced to pay for it through the health insurance offered to their employees because doing so violates religious freedom, the attorneys general said.

The attorneys general of Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia signed the letter.

The group weighed in during the 60-day comment period established by HHS after new proposed rules to implement the mandate under the Affordable Care Act were released Feb. 1. The deadline for comments is April 8.

The HHS mandate requires employers to cover contraceptives, abortion drugs and sterilization procedures in their health plans. It has been subject to several lawsuits not only from Catholic and other religious entities but also from private businesses on grounds that the exemption for those who object to it on moral or religious grounds should be expanded.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives — the Health Care Conscience Rights Act — that is designed to protect conscience rights of employers and workers.

The new proposed rules would widen the exemption for religious organizations but will not be finalized until August. The proposed rules remove three conditions that defined religious employers — as groups whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values, who primarily employ persons of the same faith and who serve those of the same faith. The fourth criterion remains: what is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

No exemption will be given to individual employees or for-profit secular employers morally opposed to such coverage.

Until the final rules on the mandate are implemented, the Obama administration has in place a “safe harbor” period that protects employers from immediate government action against them if they fail to comply with the mandate.

Numerous lawsuits by religious organizations, many of them Catholic, have been filed against the mandate. Many have been dismissed as not ripe for judicial review because the organizations have not yet shown they are harmed by the mandate because they are covered by the “safe harbor” period and because the government has not implemented the final rules on compliance with the mandate.

In December, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the lawsuit mandate filed by the Archdiocese of New York and two other Catholic entities can move forward.

Sixteen companies whose owners have moral objections to the mandate have been granted a temporary injunction while their lawsuits are pending, according to the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing many of those who have sued over the mandate.

The Catholic Church teaches that the use of artificial contraception is a sin.