"Religious Freedom" From Contraception Bill Changed; ACLU Still Not Remotely Pleased

Amid heavy dissent from the public over Arizona's bill allowing employers to drop coverage for contraception in their health care plans if they have "religious objections," House Bill 2625 was voted down by the Senate late last month.

Thanks to those gems of procedure in the Arizona Legislature, Senators moved to reconsider the bill, in which a major overhaul of the bill's language was promised.

If you ask Arizona's branch of the ACLU, those big changes didn't happen, and the bill's now a couple steps away from Governor Jan Brewer's desk.

"For ten years, the law has allowed Arizona's women and families to rely on contraception coverage in their health care plans," Arizona ACLU executive director Alessandra Soler Meetze says. "And actual religious employers have always been able to opt out of coverage if their religious beliefs called on them to do so. HB 2625 represents a dramatic change to the law and basically allows any employer to drop coverage for vital health care needs."

Judging from what Anjali Abraham, the public policy director for the ACLU of Arizona, told New Times last month, and what her ACLU colleagues are saying today, legislators may have changed the language, but they didn't change the problems the ACLU pointed out.

Two of the problems: The ease in which an employer can declare itself qualified to drop contraception coverage, and a current state law that's stricken from the current bill that provides discrimination protection.

"Supporters of this bill claim that they only want to exempt a few businesses from the law," Soler Meetze continues in a statement released today. "But there are more than 150 businesses in the Phoenix area alone -- businesses that provide a wide range of services -- that could drop contraception coverage under this bill. Removing these vital protections for women and families is the wrong move for Arizona. HB 2625 plays politics with women's health."

The other half -- the deleted anti-discrimination line -- is a little more tricky.

The bill in its current form removes the phrase "religious employer" in all references, and is now called a "religiously affiliated employer."

The current law in question states, "A religious employer shall not discriminate against an employee who independently chooses to obtain insurance coverage or prescriptions for contraceptives from another source."

That language is not precisely replaced in the proposed bill, instead making the less-specific statement on several occasions that the bill's new provisions "shall not be construed to restrict or limit any protections against employment discrimination that are prescribed in federal or state law."

Above all this, the ACLU still maintains that there's nothing about the bill that protects "religious freedom" -- which we've been hearing for a couple months now.

In early March, Planned Parenthood Arizona President Bryan Howard rejected the concept that the bill was even about "religious freedom," calling it a "political strategy to speak to a very specific segment of the Arizona public."

"This is a continuation of everything we've been seeing from Mr. Santorum [and] the vile commentary from Rush Limbaugh," Howard told New Times last month. "This is a frontal attack on basic women's healthcare."

The Senate cleared the bill yesterday with 19 "ayes," nine "nays," and two no-votes.

Bill text here.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley