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NH GOP leaders propose birth control exemption

By Norma Love
Associated Press / February 23, 2012
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CONCORD, N.H.—A GOP-dominated House committee sided Thursday with a push by Republican leaders to exempt all employers -- not just religion-affiliated institutions -- from paying for health plans that include birth control if they object on religious grounds.

The Constitutional Review and Statutory Committee voted 10-6 to recommend that the House amend a 12-year-old state law that requires insurance coverage for contraceptives if the policy also covers other medications. The proposal would exempt any employer who had a religious objection to including contraceptive coverage.

Republican House Speaker William O'Brien began championing the change to the law when he learned it existed while criticizing a federal rule that requires insurance companies to provide contraceptives to employees of religion-affiliated institutions.

O'Brien and other GOP leaders say the federal requirement should be overturned even though President Barack Obama has modified the policy so that insurance companies, and not the organization affiliated with a church, would pay for birth control coverage. They pushed a resolution through the House on Wednesday expressing their position.

Colin Manning, press secretary for Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, declined to say if Lynch would veto the bill to revise the state law if it reaches his desk.

"We have a commonsense law in place, a law that was passed 12 years ago with strong bipartisan support and the governor does not believe we should be limiting access to FDA approved prescription drugs," said Manning.

On Thursday, supporters and opponents lined up on the proposed state exemption.

O'Brien told the committee the state law is trampling on religious freedoms. He said it is similar to the federal health care changes enacted under Obama that he and other Republicans in the House oppose. O'Brien accused Obama, a Democrat, of using the issue to woo women to vote for him in November.

"This trampling on our religious rights by the president seeking electoral advantage needs to be rejected," said O'Brien.

But Claire Ebel of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said the bill could open the door to other kinds of discrimination, such as refusing to rent or serve people based on religious objections.

"This bill sets an enormously frightening precedent," she said.

She said that exempting the Catholic Church, which has been the impetus behind the call for an exemption, is different from exempting entities the church controls. For instance, Catholic Charities gets most of its funding from public sources, and organizations receiving public funding should abide by state laws that prohibit discrimination, she said.

If the measure is passed, the NHCLU will sue to block it, she said.

The Rev. Richard Slater of the United Church of Christ said his church, which opposes the bill, was not consulted. He said many other denominations have gone on record supporting contraceptives for family planning. He said allowing employers to exclude the coverage will be a minor inconvenience to those able to afford buying it, but a heavy burden on the poor.

Rep. Christopher Serlin, a Portsmouth Democrat and committee member, pointed out that current law does not mandate that employers buy insurance. He said they can avoid including contraceptives in policies by not offering any drug coverage and can avoid state mandates altogether by self-insuring.

But O'Brien said employers should be free to buy insurance coverage in the open market without abandoning religious beliefs. He said women who want the coverage don't have to work for companies that don't offer it.

Republican Rep. Andrew Manuse of Derry added that women can pay out of their own pockets if they work for a company that decided not to include the coverage.

"This bill is about religious liberty," insisted Manuse, a co-sponsor of the bill.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester also testified in support of the exemption.

Colin Manning, press secretary for Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, declined to say if Lynch would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

"We have a commonsense law in place, a law that was passed 12 years ago with strong bipartisan support and the governor does not believe we should be limiting access to FDA approved prescription drugs," said Manning.

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