A Senate panel voted Monday to let employers with religious or moral objections refuse to include contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans for their workers.

HB 2625 would repeal a decade-old mandate which says that companies that provide coverage must also include contraceptives. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said the move is necessary to protect freedom.

"I believe that we live in America,'' she said.

"We don't live in the Soviet Union,'' Lesko continued. "And so government shouldn't be telling employers, Catholic organizations or mom-and-pop employers to do something that's against their moral beliefs.''

The legislation is similar to what some Republicans in Congress have been pushing in their bid to overturn an Obama administration policy requiring contraceptive coverage by employers. That effort has so far been unsuccessful.

By contrast, Lesko's legislation already cleared the Republican-controlled House before being approved Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-2 margin.

Anjali Abraham, lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization supports protecting the religious and moral beliefs of individuals. But she told lawmakers this legislation goes beyond guarding those rights "and instead lets employers prioritize their beliefs over the beliefs, interests and needs of their employees.''

But Abraham said there is a more practical concern.

HB 2625 does have an exception, requiring employers to provide coverage for contraceptives -- but only if they are being prescribed for some purpose other than preventing pregnancy. For example, Abraham said, a woman with endometriosis.

That involves situations where cells from the lining of the womb grow in other areas of the body. Symptoms include pain, irregular bleeding and infertility. It can be treated with hormones, including contraceptives.

The problem, said Abraham, is that a woman who want payment for those contraceptives can be required to first pay for the prescription and then submit a claim to the company "along with evidence that the prescription is not in whole or in part'' to prevent pregnancy.

"She would have to reveal her underlying medical condition,'' Abraham said, information which is supposed to be private -- and is private under the current system.

And even if the contraceptives remain covered, the legislation allows the business to charge an administrative fee for handling the claims.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said he is not Catholic and does not share that religion's views that use of contraceptives is a sin.

"However, I believe their First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion need to be fully protected,'' he said. "Passing HB 2625 helps accomplish that goal.''

The measure needs only approval by the full Senate before going to the governor.

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