State senators refused Wednesday to let employers cite religious reasons to refuse to provide coverage for birth control for their workers.
The 17-13 vote to kill HB 2625 came even after proponents agreed to several changes designed to address complaints and concerns that the measure would force women who want contraceptives for non birth-control purposes to disclose their private medical conditions to their employers. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said the new language clarified that the information would go only to the firm's insurance carrier.
But Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Phoenix, pointed out that the legislation removes current legal protections which spell out that a woman who chooses to purchase contraceptives with her own money cannot be fired even if her employer finds birth control to be morally offensive.
Barto did not dispute that change in existing law. But she said there are other state and federal anti-discrimination laws, and that nothing in HB 2625 wipes those out.
Wednesday's vote is unlikely to be the last word.
Barto changed her vote to "no'' at the last minute, a procedural move that allows her to seek reconsideration. And Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, who crafted the measure, said she already is working on lining up support -- though she already thought she had.
"Two people must have changed their minds,'' she said. Asked to identify who had gone south, Lesko responded, "I'm not going to tell you that.''
If the defectors can be corralled again, that plus Barto's vote would provide the bare minimum 16 needed for Senate approval. The House already has approved a nearly identical version on a 39-18 margin.
Lesko said it's a matter of religious freedom.
A 2002 law says firms that provide insurance coverage for workers that includes prescriptions must also pay for contraceptives.
That law exempts "religious employers.'' But that includes only churches and church-run services that hire and serve mainly those of the same faith.
Lesko's legislation would let all employers claim a religious exemption.
"Religious freedom is under serious attack, again, as we all know, in every area of our lives,'' Barto told colleagues in trying to convince them to support the measure. She said that includes an effort by the Obama administration to impose nationwide what Arizona already has: a mandate to cover contraceptives with only a narrow exemption for churches.
"HB 2625 is a common-sense effort to preserve these freedoms in regards to health care,'' Barto said. "This is one of the foundational freedoms in our constitution.''
Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa, said this legislation only looks at the issue from one side.
"Who is the person who is not being represented here in this discussion?'' Lewis asked. He said most companies require employees to pay at least part of the cost of health insurance.
"They should be able to have some say,'' he said. "I'm all for religious freedom, I'm all for all kinds of freedom. But I think we have to be fair in not ascribing the rights to one group of individuals at the expense of another.''
Other than Barto and Lewis, other Republicans refusing to go along included Adam Driggs and John McComish of Phoenix, Rich Crandall of Mesa, John Nelson of Litchfield Park, Steve Pierce of Prescott and Michele Reagan of Scottsdale.
The vote comes less than two weeks after U.S. Sen. John McCain, speaking on a nationally televised show, suggested that fights like these over social issues are not good for Republicans.
"I think we ought to respect the right of women to make choices in their lives and make that clear and go back onto what the American people really care about: jobs and the economy,'' he said.
Lesko, however, said she does not see it that way.
"If Republicans don't stand up and fight for religious freedoms, who will?'' she said. "This is the right thing to do.''
Even if Lesko and Barto manage to push the measure out of the Senate, there is no guarantee that Gov. Jan Brewer will sign it.
The governor had expressed concerns nearly two weeks ago that women would feel uncomfortable about sharing private medical information with their employers. Lesko said the changes made in the bill should alleviate that, saying she has shared that information with the governor's staff.
But Lesko said she has not spoken directly with Brewer. And gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson will not comment on what his boss thinks of the measure.