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Friday, February 24, 2012

House committee OKs employers with “religious objections” refusing contraception

CONCORD – A House committee Thursday endorsed the proposal of House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, to permit any employer with a religious objection to refuse to include contraception for women as part of their health care plans.

It was the third day this week that House Republican leaders were preoccupied with taking a strong stance against President Barack Obama’s controversial mandate that employers offer contraception without any co-payment.

After a 90-minute public hearing Thursday, the House constitutional committee voted 10-6 in favor of the proposal. O’Brien charged Obama with deliberately trying to divide religious voters and trying to marginalize Catholics, who most opposed the policy.

“This trampling on our religious rights by this president seeking an election-year advantage needs to be curtailed,” O’Brien said.

The amended bill will come to the full House of Representatives for a vote next month.

Gov. John Lynch opposes the amended bill, said Press Secretary Colin Manning. He declined comment when asked about a possible veto.

“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 to FDA-approved prescription drugs,” Manning said.

Claire Ebel, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said there was no legal basis to permit these groups to opt out of the contraception mandate.

“If you pass this, you are going to face a lawsuit, and when you lose … you will pay our legal fees as well as your own,” Ebel said.

Ebel encouraged the GOP-dominated Legislature to ask the Supreme Court for an opinion on the law’s constitutionality instead of passing the bill.

Ebel stressed that the Catholic Church and other like-minded religions are already exempt from the policy. Not exempt are groups controlled by religions, such as Catholic charities, Catholic hospitals or parochial schools.

“What churches do not have is the right to ignore civil and constitutional protections of their employees in the entities that they control,” Ebel said.

Ebel pointed out that this amendment was so expansive, it would extend to any private business.

“It sets the stage for any employer to object to and therefore be free from this particular statute,” Ebel said. “This is the broadest possible exception, with nothing to do with religious freedom.”

The House on Wednesday approved a nonbinding resolution urging Congress to block the Obama policy.

The Rev. Richard Slater, associate conference minister with the United Church of Christ, said it was unfair that only the Catholic Church had been consulted with regard to this amended bill, HB 1546.

Virtually all Protestant faiths take the position that contraception is a proper way to prevent unwanted pregnancies, he continued.

“Our voices, the voices of the religious community throughout the state of New Hampshire, have not been consulted,” Slater said. “We find this legislation and its impingement on access to contraception to be appalling.”

The panel heard from conservative Republicans, who lined up both sides of the issue.

Jennifer Coffey, R-Andover, supported the provision because it did not allow any employer to refuse to cover treatment for an “ailment or illness.” The only services here were for women to prevent pregnancy, she stressed.

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, who supports abortion rights, said he did not believe the state Constitution permitted any private employer to pick and choose what mandated health care benefits they would honor.

Andrew Manuse, R-Derry, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said as a Christian, he does not agree with the Catholic Church’s view but believes that it should be respected.

“I do believe the church has the right to religious freedom,” Manuse said.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.