Several Democratic senators raised concerns Tuesday about a Missouri proposal that would let employers refuse to provide health insurance coverage for birth control, abortions and sterilization procedures.
The Missouri legislation is a response to an attempt by President Barack Obama's administration to get employers such as Catholic hospitals to provide free coverage of birth control as part of their health insurance plans. After pushback from some religious groups, Obama's administration said such coverage would be provided by insurance companies instead.
The federal rule would apply only to churches and religiously affiliated employers. But the Missouri bill would go further, 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.
The Republican-led Senate set the bill aside after two hours of debate but could return to it later this week.
Senate Republicans said employers should not have to pay for medical services they find morally objectionable.
"I don't see why I, as an employer, should have to give up my First Amendment rights," said Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton. "As an employer, you shouldn't have to give up your religious beliefs."
Sponsoring Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, said employers should decide how to structure their health insurance coverage, just as they would other benefits they provide employees.
But Democrats claimed the intent of the bill is not to protect religious freedom. Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, said Lamping's proposal could set a precedent for employers to deny coverage of a wide variety of medical treatments.
The bill amounts to an "attack against birth control and women," said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.
Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said the measure would not forbid anyone from purchasing birth control but would instead give employers "flexibility" to cover what they want.
"I just want to make it clear that we're not infringing in any way on their ability to purchase birth control," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "It's just really about the cost."
Justus said it would be more difficult for women to get access to birth control if they have to pay for it out of pocket rather than through their insurance plan.
"Contraception is something that every woman should have access to," Justus said. "We can't be in a situation where employers get to be the arbiters of what services they (employees) get and what services they don't."