The Missouri Legislature has voted to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a bill that would allow employers to opt out of covering contraceptives in health insurance policies for religious reasons.
But just hours after lawmakers voted Wednesday, the new law was hit with its first legal hurdle. The Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women and a female firefighter filed a lawsuit claiming that the legislation discriminates by sex and religion and that it goes against federal law.
The contraception law was pushed in response to a new federal mandate that would require all employers -- including religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals -- to offer birth control coverage in employee health plans.
Supporters of the exemption painted it as a fight for religious freedom.
"This bill is about protecting our religious liberties," said Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo. "It is about protecting businesses from the overreach of government."
The new law says employers cannot be required to cover contraception, abortion or sterilization if those services go against their religious or moral convictions.
The override easily passed the Senate on Wednesday, but House Republicans barely got the 109 votes needed in the override attempt, thanks to six Democrats who sided with them and after several minutes of waiting for additional votes to come in.
"We had to pick up a couple of votes there at the end from some unexpected sources, which I appreciate," said newly elected House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. "I knew we would get there ... this issue is too important to us."
Also during the Legislature's one-day veto session, lawmakers considered attempting to override another of Nixon's vetoes but ultimately gave up their battle to resurrect a bill that would have reinstated local sales taxes on used cars and cars purchased out of state.
Jones said the House didn't bring up the bill because Republican leaders couldn't muster the two-thirds vote needed for an override. As part of its lawsuit against the contraceptives bill, the Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women is seeking an injunction to stop it from ever taking effect.
"The provisions (in the legislation) are targeted heavily toward services used by female employees," the lawsuit states. "(It) allows employers to refuse to cover health services in a way that disproportionately impacts women and lacks a valid business justification."
It adds that the legislation "allows employers to impose their own religious views on employees by refusing to cover health services on the basis of the employer's religion -- even if those services are allowed or required by the employee's religion."
Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, predicted that Missouri's measure would open the state to lawsuits.
"Tax dollars will have to be spent to defend the mess we are creating today," she said during a debate over the measure Wednesday.
But Jones said he was not worried about the challenges.
"I think those of us who stand on the principles on which our country was founded, as to religious and conscience rights, welcome any fight that needs to be had with the federal government on invading those rights," he said.
Opponents of the contraception law had argued that it could limit access to affordable birth control for thousands of Missouri women.
"Birth control is basic health care and is an economic issue for Missouri women and families," said Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. "To make a woman pay for birth control on top of premium payments has real economic consequences."
Supporters of the legislation repeatedly countered those claims Wednesday.
"This is not an issue about access," said Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, who sponsored the original bill. "All employees still have access to these services. This is an issue about who pays for them."
The legislation was backed by the several religious organizations, including the Missouri Catholic Conference and Missouri Right to Life. More than 2,000 people rallied at the Capitol in March in support of the bill.
In a news conference after Wednesday's vote, Nixon said legislators who supported the contraception bill were 'standing between women and their right to make their own personal decisions about birth control."
During a House debate that lasted less than half an hour Wednesday, Republican Rep. David Sater, a pharmacist from Cassville, said oral contraceptives cost from $8 to $50 a month.
"Ninety percent of them are either in the $20 range or below that," he said. "There are generics that are very inexpensive."
Rep. Linda Black, D-Bonne Terre, said she worried the law would lead to more abortions because it could create hurdles for obtaining contraception. "I'll never vote for anything that will create that possibility," she said. "I'm doing what I feel in my heart is right."
Lamping said businesses and organizations could decide to drop health care coverage for employees to avoid the contraception mandate if Missouri does not enact the law.
"Employers are not mandated to offer health care coverage," he said. "We're seeing this happen."
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