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House passes narrowed-down contraception bill

State representatives today passed a scaled-back bill that would allow religious-based employers to deny contraception coverage to their workers.

The amended bill, HB2625, passed the Arizona House by a vote of 36-21, and will need to go back to the Senate for final approval there. If approved there, it will be delivered to Gov. Jan Brewer for either a signature or a veto.

Earlier in the week, six legislators from the House and the Senate met in a conference committee to dramatically scale down the measure so it would only apply to “religiously affiliated employers.”

The original bill would have allowed any Arizona employer to deny contraception coverage for religious reasons.

The amended version allows an employer whose incorporation papers “clearly state that it is a religiously motivated organization and whose religious beliefs are central to the organization’s operating principles” to opt out of providing contraceptives. Churches are already exempted from providing contraception coverage.

During the conference committee, Republicans also defeated two amendments by Sen. Linda Lopez to restore a clause that prohibits discrimination against employees who get contraception coverage elsewhere, and to require businesses that claim religious objections against contraception to inform current and prospective employees that they won’t cover payment for it.

Lopez, a Tucson Democrat, said her amendments were necessary to ensure that current and prospective employees know what kind of coverage they will get and guarantee that they are not discriminated against because they use contraception.

She also said the bill is still broad, even with the narrowed-down scope of it.

“I don’t know that it really changes this legislation at all,” Lopez said.

Republicans countered that the measure already contains guarantees against discrimination that are found in state and federal laws.

House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, the bill’s sponsor, said employees already get the information about their health coverage during the annual benefits renewal period.

“If it was important to me – something that was super important to me – I would have checked into that before I worked for the company,” she said.

The original version of the bill was initially defeated in the Senate. Supporters later revived the legislation and convinced enough lawmakers to switch to “yes” with the promise of a watered-down bill.

Critics have argued that the original proposal intrudes on women’s privacy, and favors the religious beliefs of employers without regard for women’s health.

During a debate in the Senate last week, Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, said the proposal imposes the religious beliefs of social conservatives on women.

“They want to control women’s bodies,” she said.

But Sen. Nancy Barto, a Republican from Phoenix and a socially conservative lawmaker, said the bill doesn’t restrict women’s access to contraception.

Contraception is readily available at a low cost, she said.

What the bill does, she added, is ensure that employers aren’t forced to violate their religious beliefs.

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