PHOENIX - Arizona businesses that designate themselves as a "religiously affiliated employer" will no longer have to include contraception in the insurance coverage they provide for their workers.
Gov. Jan Brewer has signed legislation to broaden an exemption to a 2002 law prohibiting businesses that provide prescription drugs as part of their health-insurance plans from excluding birth control pills.
"In its final form, this bill is about nothing more than preserving religious freedom to which were all constitutionally entitled," Brewer said in a prepared statement. "Mandating that a religious institution provide a service in direct contradiction with its faith would represent an obvious encroachment upon the First Amendment."
In a separate development, the governor signed legislation designed to ensure the state cannot take away the license of a professional because of that person's religious belief.
Arizona law already protects pharmacists and doctors who refuse to prescribe or dispense contraceptives. This measure extends to all state licenses.
Proponents could not cite any example where this has occurred.
But they pointed to an attempt to add sexual orientation to the oath that lawyers have to take attesting that they will not permit considerations of gender, age, race, nationality, disability or social standing to influence how they do their jobs.
Foes of that move, which eventually was abandoned, said it could have forced religious attorneys to represent gay clients who want them to take up some legal issue related to their sexual orientation.
The 2002 mandate to include contraceptive coverage in health-care plans for employees always has had an exception for churches. Similarly, church-run charities that mainly serve people of the same faith were also exempt.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, pushed a version through the House to grant that same right of refusal to any employer who claims a religious belief or moral objection to contraceptives. But the Senate rejected it, and Brewer voiced reservations.
The final version limits application of the law to an entity whose articles of incorporation "clearly state that it is a religiously motivated organization and whose religious beliefs are central to the organization's operating principles."
Lesko said that is aimed at expanding the exemption to organizations like St. Vincent de Paul that provide services to all, regardless of faith. But some opponents of the measure said they fear other companies may simply declare themselves to fit that definition to escape the contraception mandate.
She acknowledged the language is not airtight.
"I don't know if you could stop anyone from lying," Lesko conceded, while expressing doubt businesses would go through the bother of reincorporating solely to save what might be a small amount of money on their health-insurance premiums for workers unless they really are religiously motivated.
Brewer press aide Matthew Benson said that's also the assessment of his boss.
"The governor believes this is a narrowly crafted law that, in all likelihood, will only apply to a handful of employers in the state," he said.
Brewer's decision to sign the bill was immediately praised by the Arizona Catholic Conference, which represents the state's five bishops.
"HB 2625 will be very helpful in protecting religious liberty for religious affiliated employers who have an objection to abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives," the statement reads.
The measure does require all companies to pay for contraceptive drugs if they are being used for a reason other than birth control. But that requires a woman to first pay for the prescription and then provide proof of the medical reason to the employer's insurance company.
Women also remain free to purchase birth control on their own. But critics of the bill pointed out that the law contains no specific legal protections for a worker who is fired for making that personal choice.
Ron Johnson, who lobbies on behalf of the bishops, noted the entire fight in Arizona, however, could be rendered moot depending on what happens in Washington.
The Obama administration has laid out rules for the new federal health-care law that closely parallel the 2002 Arizona mandate. It does contain a religious exemption, though the scope of that remains up in the air.
"This new law will not pre-empt the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate if it is upheld," Johnson said. "However, if it is not, religious freedom in Arizona will be better protected."
Brewer also took her own slap at the Obama administration.
"It's Obamacare that created this issue by forcing church-affiliated employers and nonprofits to offer services in violation of their religious faith," she said in her statement.
Last week Brewer signed legislation designed to block any federal family planning funds funneled through the state from going to any organization that also performs abortions. The governor, who opposes all abortions except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest, acknowledged it was aimed directly at Planned Parenthood.
"The governor believes this is a narrowly crafted law that, in all likelihood, will only apply to a handful of employers in the state,"
Matthew Benson, Gov. Jan Brewer's press aide