JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers enacted new religious exemptions from insurance coverage of birth control Wednesday, overriding a gubernatorial veto and delivering a political rebuke to an Obama administration policy requiring insurers to cover contraception.
Although Missouri and 20 other states already had some sort of exemption from contraceptive coverage, Missouri's newly expanded law appears to be the first in the nation directly rebutting the federal contraception mandate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and supporters of the law.
Republican legislative leaders barely met the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto by Gov. Jay Nixon. They got help from a few of Nixon's fellow Democrats and ultimately persuaded one particular Republican lawmaker who had opposed the measure to support the override.
The Senate vote was 26-6. The House vote was 109-45, the minimum needed for an override. Most provisions of the new law took effect immediately, though some parts won't kick in for another 30 days.
Shortly after the vote, an attorney for the Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women said it was seeking an injunction against the measure. Among other things, the suit being filed in Cole County Circuit Court claims the new Missouri law conflicts with President Barack Obama's health care law and thus should be struck down.
The Missouri measure was championed by the Missouri Catholic Conference, Missouri Right to Life and other religious and anti-abortion groups. Supporters said it is meant to register their disapproval of a policy by President Barack Obama's administration that requires insurers to cover birth control at no additional cost to women, including those employed by religiously affiliated nonprofits such as hospitals, colleges or charities.
Numerous pending lawsuits claim the federal policy infringes on religious rights, including one filed Wednesday by Christian-oriented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.
"This bill is about protecting our religious liberties. This bill is about protecting businesses from the overreach of government," said Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, who handled the legislation in the House.
While vetoing the bill in July, Nixon said it was unnecessary because Missouri already has strong religious exemptions in its insurance laws. He also said the new Missouri law could allow insurers to claim a religious or moral exemption and thus deny birth control coverage to women who want it.
"By their act today, the legislators who voted to override this veto are standing between women and their right to make their own personal decisions about birth control," Nixon said Wednesday.
Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, dismissed Nixon's concerns about an insurer potentially using Missouri's new law to deny contraception coverage as "a clever concoction ... that has no basis in the practical insurance market." But he acknowledged that Missouri's law is at odds with Obama administration policy.
"If the (federal) mandate is upheld, then I think our state law becomes problematic," Hoey said.
A 2001 Missouri law states that birth control prescriptions shall be covered under policies that include pharmaceutical benefits at the same co-payment or deductible rates as other medications. That law also allows insurers to offer policies without contraception coverage to people or employers who say it violates their moral or religious beliefs. And the 2001 law ensures that people can purchase a plan with contraception coverage if their employer's plan does not offer it.
Missouri also has a 1983 law that prohibits abortion coverage in basic insurance policies, instead requiring the payment of an additional premium.
The new Missouri law allows individuals, employers and insurers to cite religious or moral exemptions from mandatory insurance coverage for abortion, contraception and sterilization. It changes a "may" to a "shall" when describing an insurer's duty to provide policies without contraception coverage for those who request it. And the new law gives the state attorney general — or other individuals and entities — grounds to file lawsuits claiming an infringement of rights if they are compelled to cover contraception.
Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus, an advocate of women's reproductive rights, said she agreed to let the legislation come to a vote — both originally in May and again Wednesday — as part of a deal with Republican Senate leaders that they wouldn't pursue any other abortion or birth control bills during the 2012 session.
"At best, this is a cheap political stunt that re-states current law. At worst, it just creates another obstacle to women accessing birth control," said Justus, D-Kansas City.
In the House, Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy, arrived in a wheelchair after suffering a staph infection from knee surgery in order to vote for the veto override. But several other lawmakers who had originally voted for the bill in May were absent, including one stuck at an airport in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Republican leaders persuaded GOP Rep. Chris Molendorp — an insurance agent from Raymore — to drop his opposition to the bill and provide the last voted needed for an override.