“Religious liberty” argument doesn’t win over Arizona lawmakers

In a legislative battle that serves as almost a microcosm of the national debate, Arizona lawmakers voted down a bill today that would have given employers the option of denying insurance coverage of contraception for religious reasons. 

Debate over the bill mirrored that of the discussion in response to the Department of Health and Human Services' requirement of contraception coverage in all employee health plans and raised some of the same questions. Supporters of the bill, including the Arizona Catholic Conference, argue that it is a means of preserving religious liberty, while opponents claimed it would be unfair to female employees and would give employers too much control.

The bill wasn't just for religious organizations, as the Arizona Republic reports that a law allowing those employers to opt out of contraception coverage has been on the books since 2002. This bill proposed a much broader exemption, allowing any employer who disagreed with contraceptives personally to exclude them from health insurance for employees.

The proposal did allow for women to receive birth control coverage if they could prove it was for a medical reason other than preventing pregnancy. Opponents were quick to argue the case that, as we've written about before, women should not have to disclose personal medical information to their (often male) employers. To the credit of Arizona's legislators, they were willing to amend the bill to ensure that those discussions would take place only between the individual and their insurance company, not their boss or HR department.

Still, that wasn't enough to get the bill past the Arizona Senate, which voted 13-17 to strike it down. Perhaps what is most interesting is that both Republicans and Democrats rejected the measure (and even Republican Sen. John McCain had voiced his disapproval of the bill).

One Republican who voted against the bill, Sen. Jerry Lewis, openly addressed the question of religious liberty, saying this bill went too far in trying to protect those rights by limiting the rights of other citizens. “I”m all for religious freedom, but we have to be fair in not prescribing rights to one group of individuals at the expense of others,” he was quoted as saying.

Not surprisingly, that same report managed to find a Catholic among the protesters rallying against the bill. Celia Arambula said she was fighting the bill to preserve her granddaughter's right to have coverage of contraception, and the rights of other women who wanted to plan the size of their families. “These lawmakers don’t speak for me," she said. "And the bishops, they don’t speak for me."

It seems that the bishops, in spite of their continued discussion of this topic and their recent round of "religious freedom" rallies around the country, are still losing support of Catholics on the issue. But more importantly, the results of the Arizona vote show they may be losing a group that is much more important when it comes to getting the broader exemptions the bishops are calling for passed–Republican lawmakers.

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former managing editor of U.S. Catholic.