Ariz. Bill Allows Religious Exemption for Birth Control Coverage

Arizona's Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Monday that would allow any employer to opt out of providing birth control coverage in their health insurance plans because of religious beliefs, but critics claim that anti-discrimination protections missing from the bill will give companies unprecedented power over female employees.

H.B. 2625, which already passed through Arizona's House earlier this month, was created to try and give any employer with a religious opposition to birth control the ability to choose against covering it in their health insurance plans.

If an employee needs birth control coverage for a specific medical reason, she must submit a claim to her employer providing evidence of the condition.

According to Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, "My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion. All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections."

The final version of the bill, however, does not contain any language preventing employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of birth control use. Since Arizona is an at-will employment state, critics argue, an employer could fire an employee for birth control use without fear of prosecution.

Earlier versions of HB 2625 contained language that kept an employer from discriminating against employees who independently purchased contraception, but that language was removed in the final draft of the bill.

Current Arizona laws prevent insurers from discriminating on the basis of contraceptive use as well, but the new bill would supersede those regulations if passed into law.

"The bill goes beyond guaranteeing a person's rights to express and practice their faith," said the ACLU's Anjali Abraham before the Senate panel voted on the bill, "and instead lets employers prioritize their beliefs over the beliefs, the interests, the needs of their employees, in this case, particularly, female employees."

Lesko, however, maintains that he bill is absolutely necessary to maintain religious freedom within the state.

"I believe we live in America. We don't live in the Soviet Union," Lesko said. "So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs."