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N.H. GOP Moves To Revise State's Contraception Law

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New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the nation, has become the latest front in the political battle over contraception. State GOP leaders oppose the new federal rule compelling insurers to provide birth control to employees of religious organizations. They want to change a 12-year-old state law that requires contraceptive coverage under insurers' prescription drug policies.

It's hard to miss the politics fueling state House Speaker William O'Brien's push to carve out a religious exemption from the contraception mandate.

"The Obama administration is trying to divide this country and to divide women against Catholics," O'Brien said. "The amendment before you, however, is a way of guaranteeing religious freedom by ensuring that we are not forcing employers to purchase health care coverage that violates their belief."

No Initial Outcry

New Hampshire has required contraceptive coverage in all prescription drug plans since 2000. The law was passed by a Republican Legislature and signed by a Democratic governor. Nobody at the time, it seems, saw the policy as a blow against religious liberty.

Democratic state Rep. Terie Norelli, who co-sponsored the law, said that objection never came up.

"There was no discussion whatsoever — I even went back and looked at the history from the bill," she said. "There was not one comment about religious freedoms."

It wasn't just lawmakers who were silent; religious leaders were, too.

"I wasn't here back in 1999," said Diane Murphy Quinlan, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, "and we didn't have a full-time lobbyist in the Legislature. It's possible that it was missed."

The diocese isn't itself directly affected by the contraception mandate because it, like the state's largest Catholic hospital, has chosen to self-insure. But if the church gets its way, contraceptive-free insurance may soon be widely available on the open market.

"I ask that all of our people of good will support that which is in the best interest of that which gives life, that which sustains life," Bishop Peter Libasci said during a recent news conference. The diocese helped draft the bill, which would free any employer, be it an auto repair shop or a metaphysical bookstore, with a religious objection to birth control.

Potential For 'Abuse'?

It's unknown how many New Hampshire employers now carry insurance that runs counter to their religious tenets, but some are out there.

"We are part of a group plan that forces us to do things that are against our Catholic principles," said George Harne, president of The College of Saint Mary Magdalen. He admits that he wasn't aware of the state law until the controversy erupted over the federal rule. But, he said, "If we had not found it now, we would have eventually discovered the problem and sought to correct it."

Yet critics say as drafted, this proposal's breadth may cause as many problems as it solves. They say its standards are so loose that employers could drop contraceptive coverage at will.

"It's more open-ended, without criteria, without definition, with room for abuse than any of the other states in the country that currently have religious exemptions," said Jennifer Frizzell, a lawyer with Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

The fight over this bill won't end soon. The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union says it will sue to block the measure should it become law. Both political parties are meanwhile using this issue — one on which bipartisan accord had been the norm in this highly secular state — to stoke activist fervor.

Copyright 2012 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.nhpr.org/.

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