Gov. Nixon vetoes religious liberty bill

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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(Updated at 5:15 p.m. July 12.)

Missouri legislators are being encouraged to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of SB 749, which would have protected Missouri individual and group insurance consumers from paying for coverage, such as contraceptives and abortions, that violates their moral or religious beliefs.

The legislators are encouraged to act during a veto session in September, according to a statement from the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which called the governor's veto decision "a profound missed opportunity to assert conscience rights for Missouri citizens when those rights are in jeopardy from the federal HHS (Health and Human Service) mandate."

The "failure to sign this critically important legislation weakens the rights of Missouri citizens, leaving them without full protection of their religious liberties," the statement from the archdiocese noted. It explained that the bill would have required insurance companies to let people know up front whether a proposed policy included coverage for abortions or contraceptives: "It would have allowed those with objections on moral grounds to have insurers exclude these items from employee's health plans."

In a letter explaining his veto, Nixon stated that he believes Missouri law already provides strong religious protections allowing employers to abstain from providing or paying for contraceptive coverage in their health plans. He also said that under a provision of SB 749 an insurance company would be allowed to impose its will "and deny inclusion of contraceptive coverage, even if that position is inconsistent with the rights and beliefs of the employee or employer."

Religious liberty advocates had urged Missourians to contact Gov. Nixon and call on him to sign the bill into law, after many influential groups — from Planned Parenthood to the Missouri chapter of the AFL-CIO — pressured Nixon to veto the bill. Earlier, Nixon had indicated he was favorable toward the bill.

Nixon had until July 14 to act on the bill. He held a press conference July 12 announcing his decision on SB 749 and on other legislation.

Legislators passed the bill upholding religious liberties and protecting rights of conscience for the citizens of Missouri with just three hours left in the 2012 session of the Missouri General Assembly.

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 stated that SB 749 "upholds religious liberty in a very practical way. Under this bill, no one can be forced to pay for surgical abortions, abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives or sterilizations when this violates their moral or religious beliefs. The governor's contention that SB 749 adds nothing new to state law to protect religious liberty is simply false."

The Catholic Conference explained that:

• SB 749 allows workers to exclude and not pay for elective (surgical) abortions when the company plan includes this coverage.

• SB 749 requires health insurance carriers to write policies that exclude contraceptives when the employer has moral or religious objections.

• SB 749 ensures that consumers know in advance whether or not a proposed health plan will cover abortion or contraceptives.

Current Missouri law does none of these things, according to a statement from the conference. "In fact, during committee hearings on SB 749, citizens testified that they were not aware (but found out later) that their health plan covered items such as contraceptives and abortions. SB 749 will put an end to this practice so people can ensure that their health plans correspond to their most deeply held religious and moral beliefs."

In his message, the governor stated that SB 749 will allow insurance companies to deny workers coverage for contraceptives. "This is simply not true," the conference said. "Only insurance carriers in Missouri that operate according to an established set of religious beliefs or moral convictions (in reality, very few) have a right under SB 749 and current law to opt out of providing such coverage. All other carriers must offer contraceptive coverage pursuant to existing Missouri law."

The Catholic Conference urged people to contact their state legislators and urge an override of the veto. 

 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.

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 bill was passed in the Senate in the first round by a vote of 26 to 5 with three absent.

Mike Hoey of the Missouri Catholic Confernece had noted that "opponents of SB 749 are ramping up their veto campaign." Reports are that the governor received some 10,000 messages on the bill.

Hoey said earlier, "Gov. Nixon is under tremendous pressure to veto SB 749. He is being told that the bill is about contraceptives, not religious liberty and rights of conscience. This is a lie, but if a lie is told long enough people begin to believe it."

While such expected opponents as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America (formerly National Abortion Rights Action League) called for the veto, so were the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Sierra Club, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Missouri chapter of the AFL-CIO. The opposition of the large labor organization was particularly sad, since the Catholic Church has long been a strong supporter of unions and the rights of workers, said Hoey.

The AFL-CIO, which dubbed SB 749 as the Birth Control Refusal Bill, "is misreading SB 749, or maybe not reading the bill at all," according to the MCC. The legislation retained provisions of current law that ensure that women who want to purchase coverage for contraceptives can do so, even when their employer opts not to pay for contraceptives.

The bill would have given the attorney general authority to file suit in state and/or federal court to protect the religious liberties of individual and group insurance consumers, including religious institutions, who do not want to be compelled to have abortion, contraception or sterilization coverage in their health plans. 

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