By WES DUPLANTIER
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A debate in the Missouri Capitol over birth control grew Tuesday as a panel of lawmakers endorsed legislation that would allow any employer to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for contraception if doing so goes against the employer's religious beliefs.
The legislation, which would allow employers to refuse to provide coverage for birth control, abortions or sterilization procedures, was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee on a 6-2 vote along party lines.
The vote sends the bill to the full Senate and comes a few weeks after the Obama administration tried to get employers such Catholic hospitals to provide free coverage of birth control as part of their health insurance plans. After pushback from some religious groups, the administration said last week that such coverage would be provided by insurance companies instead, a move the administration said was a sort of compromise on the issue.
The federal rule would only apply to churches and religiously-affiliated employers. The Missouri bill would go farther, allowing any employer to refuse to provide coverage for the medical services if the services violate the employer's beliefs. It does not call for insurance companies to provide the coverage instead.
Sponsoring Sen. John Lamping alluded to the federal rule in his remarks to the Senate committee. Lamping, R-St. Louis County, also said he did not think his measure would make it more difficult for women to obtain birth control pills.
"Nowhere in this bill is any effort made to deny a woman's health care," he said. "Reaffirming religious freedom and the conscience clause here in Missouri is the only acceptable compromise."
Representatives for Catholic and Baptist churches in the state voiced their support for Lamping's measure, also alluding to the Obama administration's new rule.
"If there's one thing we've learned in recent weeks, it's that we should not trust our religious liberty to federal regulators," said Bishop John Gaydos, of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City. "This so-called compromise falls far short of protecting the religious liberties our citizens far cherish."
Michelle Trupiano, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Missouri, said allowing an employer to not offer coverage of birth control could make it more difficult for women to have access to the medications, even if they use it for something other than preventing pregnancy.
"Birth control is good preventive care," she said. "Women should not be denied access to this benefit just because they work for a religious employer."
The small business committee took the unusual step of voting on Lamping's bill the same day the committee heard testimony.
Two Democrats on the panel, Minority Leader Victor Callahan and Sen. Tim Green, objected to the same-day vote. They said they might support the bill's intent, but had questions about the definitions of certain terms in the bill, such as what constitutes a "moral conviction."
"I'm offended that we are rushing this through," said Green, D-St. Louis County. "I don't think it's right."
Sen. Scott Rupp, chairman of the committee and co-sponsor of Lamping's bill, said the committee voted Tuesday because it does not plan to meet next week. Rupp, who has proposed a constitutional amendment similar to Lamping's measure, also called the new federal rule a "full-frontal assault on religious liberty."
Lamping's bill and Rupp's proposed constitutional amendment generated discussion in the Capitol even before Tuesday's hearing. Several Democratic House members also spoke out against both Senate proposals at a Monday news conference.
"For others to say that this (the Obama administration rule) is a religious attack is bogus," said Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis. "This is about a woman's right to have access to birth control. A woman should have the right to plan when she has children."
Birth control bill is SB749
Constitutional amendment is SJR49