The state House voted Thursday to let any employer refuse to provide contraceptive coverage based on its religious beliefs.

Thursday’s 39-18 vote came over objections from lawmakers who said the existing objection for churches is sufficient. That included Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, who said that as a woman, mother and grandmother, she was “appalled” at the legislation.

“You men have no business lecturing the women of Arizona about the use of birth control and whether or not it is a crime,” she said. And Alston said while HB 2625 deals only with who pays for the drugs, Alston said letting any employer opt out is “blatantly unconstitutional.”

But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said it is wrong for state government to mandate activities that violate an individual’s religious beliefs.

He specifically mentioned the “morning-after” pill which is available to those who have had unprotected sex. While some say the pill works by preventing ovulation, others say it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

“When it involves killing a fertilized egg, it is killing a human being,” Kavanagh said.

“Under that principle, people who are Catholic believe that they are committing a wrong by doing this. And, in our society, you have to respect that.”

The fight playing out at the Capitol parallels the objections the Catholic Church and some other religious groups have raised to rules by the Obama administration to require coverage for contraceptives. Foes contend there needs to be a broader exemption for religious organizations which are not churches themselves.

But this legislation actually goes farther, allowing any corporation or business — even one without a stated religious purpose — to opt out based on a declared religious objection.

State lawmakers voted in 2002 to spell out that employers who provide health insurance for their workers that includes prescriptions cannot exclude contraceptives that are available only by prescription.

Lawmakers agreed at that time to craft an exemption for religions whose tenets preclude the use of birth control. But Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said that exception is too narrow. In essence, it is limited to churches and to nonprofit service affiliates, but only if they primarily employ and serve people of the same faith.

Ron Johnson, lobbyist for the Arizona Catholic Conference, said that leaves out other church-owned or operated organizations, ranging from Catholic hospitals to St. Vincent de Paul Society. He said they are entitled to the same protection.

Johnson acknowledged, however, this legislation expands it to any business which claims that birth control, morning-after pills, abortion or sterilization is contrary to its religious belief. And that would be accomplished solely by filing an affidavit with that claim.

Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, called the legislation an attempt by lawmakers to interfere with the private lives of individuals.

“Over 90 percent, by anybody’s measurement, of American women, including Catholics, use or have used contraception,” he said. “I stand here to say this is a right guaranteed by our constitution.”

Johnson, however, does not see it that way.

“It’s a religious liberty issue,” he said. And Johnson said those who argue that women will be denied access to contraceptives are ignoring economic reality.

Johnson said he checked with various pharmacies, including those at grocery stores, about the price of contraceptives. He said the charge for a month of pills was as low as $4 for a generic version.

“It was cheaper than the co-pay” that an insurance company would require its policyholders to pay, he said.

And Johnson said while some businesses might choose to opt out of contraceptive coverage, he doubts that will be the case for major national corporations.

“They’d face a backlash from all these protests,” he said, making them adverse to changing insurance coverage in ways that their female customers might find objectionable.

The legislation also contains language which allows insurance companies themselves to claim a religious exemption.

Deborah Sheasby, an attorney with the Center for Arizona Policy, said that was inserted in the wake of a “compromise” President Obama offered when his first contraceptive plan drew fire.

His alternative instead said the coverage would still have to be provided, but the religious employer would not have to pay. Instead, the cost would be shouldered by the insurance company under a premise that birth control ultimately costs less than prenatal coverage.

But Sheasby said that’s no compromise at all.

“You’re still paying for it by way of paying your insurance premiums,” she said. “So it’s not really an acceptable solution to the problem.”

Kavanagh said he was surprised that anyone would oppose a law that allows companies to refuse to fund a practice they find morally objectionable.

“It’s amazing how people who preach tolerance all the time become unbelievably intolerant of other people when they disagree with what they should be doing,” he said.

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