PHOENIX -- Arizona businesses that designate themselves to be a "religiously affiliated employer' will no longer have to include contraceptives in the insurance coverage they provide for their workers.
Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation to broaden an exemption to a 2002 law which spells out that businesses which provide prescription drugs as part of their health insurance plans cannot exclude birth control pills. The governor said she was satisfied with the last-minute compromise worked out by lawmakers.
"In its final form, this bill is about nothing more than preserving religious freedom to which were all constitutionally entitled,' Brewer said in a prepared statement. "Mandating that a religious institution provide a service in direct contradiction with its faith would represent an obvious encroachment upon the First Amendment.'
In a separate development, the governor signed legislation designed to ensure that the state cannot take away the license of a professional because of that person's religious belief.
Arizona law already protects pharmacists and doctors who refuse to prescribe or dispense contraceptives. This measure extends to all state licenses.
Proponents could not cite any example where this has occurred.
But they pointed to an attempt -- eventually abandoned -- to expand the oath that lawyers have to take that they will not permit considerations of gender, age, race, nationality, disability social standing to influence how they do their jobs to extend to sexual orientation. Foes of that move, which eventually was abandoned, said it could have force religious attorneys to represent gay clients who want them to take up some legal issue related to their orientation.
The 2002 mandate to include contraceptive coverage in health care plans for employees always has had an exception for churches. Similarly, church-run charities that mainly serve people of the same faith were also exempt.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, pushed a version through the House to grant that same right of refusal to any employer at all who claims a religious belief or moral objection to contraceptives. But that proved unacceptable to the Senate, with even the governor expressing concern with some provisions.
The final version narrows that an entity whose articles of incorporation "clearly state that it is a religiously motivated organization and whose religious beliefs are central to the organization's operating principles.'
Lesko said that is aimed at expanding the exemption to organizations like St. Vincent de Paul which provides services to all, regardless of faith. But some opponents of the measure said they feared that other companies may simply declare themselves to fit that definition to escape the contraceptive mandate.
She acknowledged that language is not airtight.
"I don't know if you could stop anyone from lying,' Lesko conceded. But she said she doubted that many businesses that do not really have a religious basis would go through the bother of reincorporating solely to save what might be a small amount of money on their health insurance premiums for workers.
Brewer press aide Matthew Benson said that's also the assessment of his boss.
"The governor believes this is a narrowly crafted law that, in all likelihood, will only apply to a handful of employers in the state,' he said.
The measure does require all companies to pay for contraceptive drugs if they are being used for some reason other than birth control. But that requires a woman to first pay for the prescription and then provide proof of the medical reason to the employer's insurance company.
Women also remain free to purchase birth control on their own. But critics of the bill pointed out that the law contains no specific legal protections for a worker who is fired for making that personal choice.
Brewer's decision to sign the bill was immediately praised by the Arizona Catholic Conference which represents the state's five (cq) bishops and which had lobbied for the law.
"HB 2625 will be very helpful in protecting religious liberty for religious affiliated employers who have an objection to abortion inducing drugs and contraceptives,' the statement reads.
Ron Johnson, who lobbies on behalf of the bishops, said that reference to "abortion inducing drugs' relates to what is known as the "morning-after pill,' essentially high doses of hormones.
One explanation of how that drug works is that it prevents a woman from ovulating. But there also are those who believe that it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, which some say is the equivalent of abortion.
Johnson noted the entire fight in Arizona, however, could be rendered moot depending on what happens in Washington.
The Obama administration has laid out rules for the new federal health care law which closely parallel the 2002 Arizona mandate. It does contain a religious exemption, though the scope of that remains up in the air.
"This new law will not preempt the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate if it is upheld,' Johnson said. "However, if it is not, religious freedom in Arizona will be better protected.'
Brewer also took her own slap at the Obama administration.
"It's ObamaCare that created this issue by forcing church-affiliated employers and non-profits to offer services in violation of their religious faith,' she said in her statement.
Last week Brewer signed legislation designed to block any federal family planning funds funneled through the state from going to any organization that also performs abortions. The governor, who opposes all abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incese, acknowledged it was aimed directly at Planned Parenthood.