Bishops, House speaker urge Mo. attorney general to appeal contraception law

The Missouri bishops are among those urging Attorney General Chris Koster to appeal a judge's order that struck down a state law protecting religious liberties.

In addition, Missouri House Speaker Timothy Jones, R-Eureka, announced at a press conference March 28 in Springfield, Mo., that he has proposed a House Concurrent Resolution urging Koster to defend the law. The bill is HCR 35.

On March 14, St. Louis federal district court Judge Audrey Fleissig struck down portions of a Missouri law protecting the conscience rights of those objecting to paying for contraceptive coverage and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans. The law was known as SB 749 during the legislative process.

The Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the state's bishops, said it was disappointed in Judge Fleissig's decision, adding that it attacks the conscience rights and religious liberty of all Missouri citizens. Attorney General Koster had defended the law before the court, but Judge Fleissig dismissed those arguments.

In a March 21 letter, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, speaking on behalf of all Missouri bishops, urged Koster to appeal the judge's decision "with all due haste. No one should be forced to pay for contraceptives and potentially abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their conscience."

The Archbishop's letter was accompanied by a statement signed by the Missouri bishops.

SB 749 has had a tumultuous history. Last September, the Missouri General Assembly overturned Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of of the bill and passed a revision to existing Missouri law strengthening those conscience protections. Once it became law, the Missouri insurance industry filed suit against it. Several days later, Judge Fleissig issued an order temporarily blocking enforcement of the law.

The bishops said in their statement that "the revisions to Missouri's insurance law (SB 749) passed last September respected the fundamental right of both institutions and individuals to exercise their religious convictions in the health care insurance marketplace. Unfortunately, Judge Fleissig's March 14 decision not only strikes down several of those revisions, but it leaves Missouri law with a contraceptive mandate and no conscience protections. This is unacceptable."

In a statement, House Speaker Jones said "the clock is ticking for an appeal to be filed regarding SB 749, a bill intended to protect the rights guaranteed to us in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment from being infringed upon by a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services."

"Last week, I submitted a letter to Attorney General Koster urging him to appeal this case on the grounds that the HHS mandate violates both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and I have yet to receive a response," Jones said in the statement. "As a result, I will be working with my fellow members of the Missouri House of Representatives to pass a House Concurrent Resolution urging swift action in defense of our religious liberties. Attorney General Koster's job is to defend our state laws without prejudice ..."

Meanwhile, 13 attorneys general from across the nation sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on March 26, asking for wider religious exemptions to the HHS mandate that employee health insurance plans cover contraceptives. The attorneys general were from Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.

"The proposed regulations selectively address faith and conscience-based objections to a government mandate that requires businesses and nonprofits to pay for insurance coverage for contraception and other reproductive services," the attorneys general wrote. "They allow a limited few religious nonprofits, such as houses of worship, to avoid the 'HHS mandate' altogether.

"The proposed regulations purport to allow a few other religious-affiliated nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities, to avoid paying directly for these reproductive services by requiring the insurance companies that cover the organizations' employees to provide 'free' coverage," they also wrote. "The proposed regulations provide no exception to the HHS mandate for for-profit business owners who object on conscience grounds." 

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