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Contraception bill defeated – but battle far from over

In a startling turn of events, state senators today rejected a proposal to allow employers with religious objections to deny contraception coverage to their workers.

The measure was defeated by a close margin – 13-17.

But the battle isn’t over yet.

Sen. Nancy Barto, a key ally of the pro-life movement, switched her vote to “no,” a maneuver that allows her to try and revive the bill.

The Phoenix Republican pleaded to colleagues to support the measure, arguing that religious freedoms are under “serious attack.”

“Health care is just the latest venue for that attack,” she said.

But Sen. Jerry Lewis, a Republican from Mesa, was unconvinced.

Lewis said he’s all for religious freedom.

But he said workers often pay a portion of their health coverage, and the measure leaves them out of the discussion.

“I’m all for religious freedom… but I think we have to be fair in not ascribing rights to one group of individuals at the expense of another,” he said.

Several other Republicans voted against the bill

By tackling the contraception bill, Arizona’s lawmakers have waded deeper into a cultural war that has engulfed the nation.

Prior to the vote, the bill was tweaked to clarify that women who still insist on getting the coverage won’t have to disclose private information to their employers.

The measure requires women who want the contraceptives to show evidence that they’re not using them to prevent pregnancy.

But there was a little confusion about where they must provide that medical information.

As amended, the bill says the information will go to the insurance company.

Additionally, it now says it doesn’t authorize employers to obtain workers’ health information in violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

It also adds a clause to say none of its provisions should be construed to constrict protections in state and federal laws against employment discrimination.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, implores her colleagues to vote against the bill that would allow employers with religious objections to deny contraception coverage to their workers. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Critics earlier had hammered on one portion of the bill that deletes current law that expressly prohibits religious employers from discriminating against a worker who has obtained contraception coverage elsewhere.

But the changes, which were offered during a debate in the Senate prior to the vote, didn’t mollify critics.

Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Tucson, pressed Barto about what happens if the employer is an insurance company — which creates a situation where a woman still has to prove to her boss that she’s not using contraception medication for birth control.

And just to hammer home her point about the need for lawmakers to focus on more pressing issues, Lopez asked: “Can you tell me how many jobs this is going to create in Arizona?”

Barto said she can’t say, but the legislation sends a signal to businesses that Arizona will respect their religious views, and that may attract them to the state.

The measure would still need the House’s approval even if it comes back to the Senate for a vote.

Earlier, U.S. Sen. John McCain cautioned party mates against the measure.

“I think we have to fix that,” McCain told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the idea that Republicans have started a “war on women.” “I think there is a perception out there because of the way this whole contraception issue played out. We need to get off of that issue in my view.

“I think we ought to respect the right of women to make choices in their lives and make that clear – and get back onto what the American people really care about: jobs and the economy,” he said.

Before the Senate vote, pro-choice and family planning organizations gathered on the House lawn for a rally against the bill. The last-minute push to stop it was organized by Planned Parenthood, but activists – upwards of 65 in all, mostly women – included representatives from the National Women’s Organization and NARAL Pro-Choice.

Rep. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, and Sens. Linda Lopez and Paula Aboud, both Tucson Democrats, were on hand as well.

Hobbs and Lopez framed the measure as part of a larger effort by Republicans to strip women of reproductive rights.

“If we actually passed legislation to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, we’d decrease the number of abortions in this state,” Hobbs said. “But Republicans don’t even want to have that conversation.”

Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko, sponsor of the bill, and Barto organized an impromptu press conference behind the old Capitol building. Lesko acknowledged the bill was less about health issues than it was about an employer’s right to deny coverage for contraception if it goes against his religious beliefs.

“It is so important that we stand up for religious freedom,” she said to a crowd of about 15 supporters. “That’s what this discussion is about.”

Many of the women’s rights activists had begun gathering around the podium, although the tone of the press conference was subdued. Republican staffers quickly ushered Barto to the Senate building, where the measure was scheduled for a floor vote. As she left, pro-choice activists began chanting, “Division of church and state!”

Reporter Derek Quizon contributed to this report

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