Bill on religious liberty gets final legislative approval, awaits governor's signature
With just three hours left in the 2012 session of the Missouri General Assembly, legislators passed a bill upholding religious liberties and protecting rights of conscience for the citizens of Missouri.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Clayton, sponsored SB 749, which passed by supermajorities in both chambers. Twenty-eight out of 34 senators and 105 out of 163 state representatives voted for the bill. The Missouri Catholic Conference will now turn its attention to urging Gov. Nixon to sign the bill so it can become state law.
This legislation protects rights of conscience and upholds religious liberties, particularly in the health insurance market. Key provisions include:
• No employee or self-employed person can be compelled to obtain insurance coverage that covers abortion, contraception or sterilization when such items violate their religious or moral convictions;
• No employer, health plan provider or health plan sponsor can be compelled to provide coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization when such items violate their religious or moral convictions;
• No government entity can discriminate against or penalize any health plan or plan sponsor because the plan or sponsor will not offer coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization because such items violate their religious or moral convictions;
• The state attorney general is authorized to bring suit in state or federal court to defend the conscience rights of Missouri citizens outlined above;
• Health insurance carriers are required to offer and issue policies to employers that do not cover contraceptives when this violates their moral and religious convictions;
• If an employer pays for an optional rider to cover elective abortions for his/her employees, an employee has the right to exclude and not pay for such abortion coverage in his health premium.
Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, hailed passage of the legislation. "If signed by Gov. Nixon, Missouri will have one of the strongest laws respecting rights of conscience in the nation. This legislation makes sure people don't have to pay for elective abortions, abortion drugs and other morally objectionable items when they purchase their health insurance."
Passage of the legislation was spurred on when some 3,000 people came to the Missouri Capitol on March 27 for a rally for religious liberty. People of faith came to the rally to protest the Obama administration's edict that insurance policies cover abortion drugs, sterilization procedures and contraceptives. Rally participants were also advocating for passage of SB 749 as a way of asserting the rights of the citizens of Missouri to not have to pay for these items. Two days later the Missouri Senate approved the bill and sent it to the Missouri House of Representatives.
Hoey said after some debate, some representatives of the insurance industry eventually agreed to the conscience protections proposed by the legislation.
The federal mandate will require all employers, effective Aug. 1, 2012, to provide coverage in their health care plans for contraception, sterilizations and abortion-producing drugs. The mandate has a limited religious exemption that would protect only Catholic institutions that seek to inculcate Catholic values and "primarily" employ and serve Catholics.
The Missouri Catholic Conference reported that federal law supercedes state law. However, federal courts may rule that this law is in violation of the U.S. Constitution. If this occurs, the new Missouri law will stand and be an explicit affirmation of protecting religious liberty.
The law also sends a powerful message to Congress, the Catholic Conference noted.
"Ultimately, protection of religious liberty will require the active involvement of citizens, which must start on the local and state level. We cannot and must not wait on Congress to protect religious liberty," a statement from the Catholic Conference noted.
The bill was passed in the Senate in the first round by a vote of 26 to 5 with three absent. "I want to send a message to Washington that the people of Missouri will not stand for this intrusion on religious liberty," Lamping said earlier about the bill.
Some information for this story was provided by the Missouri Catholic Conference.
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