NH News
6:19 pm
Tue March 6, 2012

Contraception Fight Heading To House Floor

House Speaker William O'Brien's bill to allow any employer with a religious objection to exclude contraception coverage from employee health plans draws fire from Democrats and leaves GOP Gubernatorial hopefuls leery.

Democrats’ problems with this bill are by far the more pronounced. Gubernatorial hopeful Jackie Cilley, for instance, has urged supporters to “take to the streets” over the issue. Fellow candidate Maggie Hassan, meanwhile, took to the statehouse for a morning press conference.

“We have to stand together, and strongly urge this legislature to reject this infringement on a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions. We cannot let the O’Brien legislature turn back the clock on New Hampshire's women.”

Hassan was wearing a "Trust Women" button, and was joined at the podium by about 20, supporters.

As soon as her press conference was over, Democratic lawmakers, kicked off another one, led by House Minority leader Terie Norelli. She was a sponsor of the 12-year old law Speaker O’Brien hopes to repeal.

"My republican colleagues are using the banner of religious freedom as a way to mask their blatant attacks on women’s health rights. But make no mistake, this bill would prevent women from making their own decisions about contraception."  

Besides House Republican leadership, the contraception mandate repeal, also enjoys the backing of the Diocese of Manchester, which didn’t oppose the law when it passed in 1999, or complain about it until contraceptive coverage under the new federal health insurance overhaul became a political flashpoint.

Speaker William O’Brien freely acknowledges that political battle inspired his bill. And he's adamant that the public deserves the protection he says his proposal aims to provide.

"We have the right to walk out of our synagogues and our churches and temples and still be religious people and not be asked to leave out religious principles at the doorsteps. And you know it just isn’t contraceptives."

The Speaker didn’t elaborate. But his view that any employer, regardless of whether they have a clear religious affiliation, deserves an absolute right to opt out of contraception coverage isn’t universal, or even  shared by his party’s two declared candidates for Governor.

"The legislature would be wise to be more specific."

That’s Kevin Smith, who before jumping into the race for Governor ran the Conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action.

"From everything I’ve heard this has to do with religious organizations and not any employer. It sounds to me like that’s maybe making it a little too broad."

Fellow candidate Ovide Lamontagne, who’s served as outside general counsel to the Manchester Diocese, seems to agree. In a statement, Lamontagne said his approach to the issue would be to create a "conscience clause" that exempts religious organizations from government mandates to provide contraception, where doing so would violate their faith. The House is expected to vote on the repeal of the Speaker O’Brien’s bill this week. It will go to the senate if it passes. Governor Lynch opposes it, but has stopped short of a threatening a veto.