WASHINGTON — A new online petition is asking the federal government to withdraw the Department of Health and Human Services' controversial contraception mandate on the grounds that it violates the fundamental “inalienable right” to religious liberty.

“The amount of time and money spent trying to reconcile the HHS mandate with legitimate First Amendment concerns has been considerable, and without a satisfactory conclusion,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “The only sensible outcome is for the administration to withdraw the mandate altogether.”

The petition stresses that religious liberty is “a First Amendment right that cannot be abridged by any administration or policy initiative.”

“Indeed, it is our most important inalienable right: It is not a bargaining chip that can be traded for some other purpose,” it states.

The Catholic League launched the petition drive in response to the HHS mandate, which requires most employers to provide no co-pay insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, as well as some drugs that cause abortions.

The HHS mandate has prompted lawsuits from more than 200 Catholics and others with moral and religious objections to providing the coverage.

Plaintiffs include private businesses, Catholic Charities affiliates, Catholic dioceses and colleges and universities, including the University of Notre Dame. Several other Christian colleges and Christian-run businesses have also filed suit.

Finalized in June 2013, the mandate exempts only places of worship and their auxiliary institutions, but not religious charities, health-care systems and schools.

Non-exempt nonprofit institutions with moral objections to the mandate may apply for an “accommodation” under which insurance issuers will be required to provide payments for contraceptive services directly to employees of the organization. If a religious employer is self-insured, a third-party administrator will act in the place of an insurer to arrange the provision of employees' contraceptives.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said in July that the proposed accommodation did not eliminate concerns about religious freedom. He said that the objectionable items will still be paid for “by virtue of the fact that an employee belongs to the Catholic employer’s plan.”

While the Obama administration claims that insurers will be able to fund the contraceptives without reimbursement due to health benefits and reduced costs resulting from contraceptive use, critics have argued that there will still be costs associated with the products and that these costs will ultimately be passed on to the employers who object to them.

Neither the exemption nor the accommodation extends to for-profit companies whose owners have objections to providing the coverage.

Donohue criticized the mandate’s “entirely too narrow” definition of a religious employer. He said the mandate abridges religious liberty in a way that places “an unfair burden on Catholic nonprofit organizations and Catholic-owned private businesses.”

The Catholic League’s petition notes that the mandate has already caused considerable expense among those who object to it.

“Considering the amount of time and money that has been spent trying to fix the problems that are inherent in this legislation — without a satisfactory resolution — it makes no sense to continue this process any longer,” it states.

The HHS petition drive will end Sept. 30. Its signatures will be forwarded to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The Catholic League has asked petition supporters to encourage family, friends and fellow parishioners to sign it.

The Catholic League's HHS petition may also be viewed here.