PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill Friday that relaxes Arizona's requirement for health plans to cover contraception, legislation that supporters called a protection for religious freedom and that critics called an attack on women.
"I think this moves us in the wrong direction in this state," said Anjali Abraham, the public policy director with the ACLU of Arizona. "We are really limiting women's access to healthcare and nothing good can come from that."
Abraham said it is too soon to tell if they will attempt a legal challenge of this law.
Under the measure, employers that formally identify themselves as religiously oriented organizations will be able to drop contraception coverage for birth control purposes. They'd still have to provide it for other medical reasons. The bill also affects coverage for abortion-inducing drugs.
"In its final form, this bill is about nothing more than preserving the religious freedom to which we are all constitutionally entitled," Brewer said in a statement. "Mandating that a religious institution provide a service in direct contradiction with its faith would represent an obvious encroachment upon the First Amendment. With this common sense bill, we can ensure that Arizona women have access to the health services they need and religious institutions have their faith and freedom protected."
The bill stirred months of debate in the Republican-led Legislature, both for its potential impact on women's health coverage and privacy concerns.
"This is only the latest of the numerous bills the governor has signed that restrict women's access to preventive health care, taking personal medical decisions away from women and handing them over to politicians," said Bryan Howard, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Arizona.
Argument over the Arizona bill echoed national debate about religious freedom and birth control that was sparked after the Obama administration required employers to provide contraception coverage under the federal health care overhaul.
Supporters of the legislation sought to loosen a decade-old state law that generally requires employers' health plans to cover contraception. That current law allows churches to opt out of providing coverage for contraception for birth control purposes.
As originally proposed in the Legislature, the bill would have allowed any employer to opt out due to religious objections.
However, in a change made to win votes for passage, the bill's final version gave the opt-out only to religiously oriented organizations.
Those include church-affiliated hospitals and charities, though some critics of the legislation say other employers also could qualify merely by changing their business records.
Lawmakers also changed the bill to specify that employers opting out of coverage for birth control could not make workers tell employers the workers' other medical reasons for using contraception.
Bill supporters contended the original bill would have required workers to provide that information only to health-plan administrators, not employers themselves, but critics of the bill disputed that.
Brewer had voiced concern about that provision in March, but the Republican governor said during a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press that her position on the final version of the bill was "more favorable."
Arizona's Roman Catholic bishops, who sought the legislation, said it will be "very helpful in protecting religious liberty for religiously affiliated employers." The Catholic church opposes abortion and contraception for birth control.
The bishops said in a statement that the new Arizona law would not trump the federal requirement if it is upheld in court. "However, if it is not, religious freedom in Arizona will be pretty protected," the bishops said.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an advocacy group for social conservatives, said the bill "protects religiously affiliated employers from being forced to violate their religious convictions."
The contraception bill was one of several measures related to reproductive rights approved by the Legislature.
Brewer signed a bill May 4 to prohibit government funding for Planned Parenthood for non-abortion services. She previously signed a measure imposing new restrictions on abortions, including a ban on abortions starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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