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PHOENIX -- Senate President Steve Pierce cleared the way for a floor debate this week on legislation allowing employers to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage for their workers on religious grounds.

Pierce on Monday allowed HB2625 to be reviewed by the Rules Committee. That comes a week after he yanked it from the agenda amid questions about its provisions.

Last week's action also came after Gov. Jan Brewer expressed some concerns about the bill, Sen. John McCain said lawmakers should "get off that issue," and Pierce himself got "tons of public comment" against it, according to spokesman Mike Philipsen.

By Monday, though, Pierce told Capitol Media Services he saw no reason not to let it proceed.

"I think it's been misconstrued and misportrayed," he said.

But Pierce's decision came after proponents of the legislation agreed to make several changes to address both legal and political questions.

Central to the debate is the conflict between the rights of employers who pay for insurance for their workers and the rights of the workers for coverage for all of their medical conditions.

Companies are not required to provide health insurance for workers. But a 2002 law says if they do, and if that coverage includes prescriptions, it cannot exclude contraceptives.

That law already exempts churches and some church-run charities. HB2625 would extend that right of religious objection to all Arizona businesses.

Ron Johnson, who lobbies for the Arizona Catholic Conference, said it's wrong to force those whose religion considers birth control to be unacceptable to finance it for their workers. Opponents including Anjali Abraham of the American Civil Liberties Union counter that these companies hire and serve people of various faiths.

Several changes in the House-passed measure already are in the works to deal with complaints.

Two are designed to deal with a provision in the legislation that says employers cannot refuse to pay for contraceptives if they are being prescribed for a reason other than birth control. But the legislation requires the woman to pay for the drug herself and then seek reimbursement with a claim "to the corporation."

Deborah Sheasby, an attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy which is backing the measure, said that referred to insurance companies. But she said that led people to fear women would be providing medical information to employers.

The new version will spell out that reimbursement request goes to the insurer and that the employer is not entitled to any information.

Sheasby said the proposal also will strip out language which would have required a woman to prove not only that she has a medical condition that requires contraceptives -- essentially doses of hormones -- but also that she was not taking the drug to keep from getting pregnant.

Also gone will be a reference that would allow an employer to deny contraceptive coverage for moral as well as religious reasons. Johnson said that was a drafting error.

But proponents are unwilling to include a specific protection for women.

The current law, which lets religious employers refuse to pay for contraceptive coverage, prohibits them from discriminating against any worker "who independently chooses to obtain insurance coverage or prescriptions for contraceptives from another source." That language is not included in the new version.

Sheasby, however, said no specific anti-discrimination language is necessary. Instead, the legislation will be amended to say that women retain whatever legal protections they have in state law against being fired.

How broad that is, however, is unclear: Arizona is an "at will" employment state, meaning companies can fire an employee for a good reason or for no reason at all.

The law precludes firing for a reason "contrary to public policy." But that may have no effect without a specific prohibition against firing a woman for using birth control.

Even if the Senate approves the measure, that still leaves the open question of whether the governor would sign it.

Last week Brewer said she "would probably agree with the majority of people that would be a little bit uncomfortable for a woman to have to go to her employer and tell him or her their health private issues." Late Monday, though, press aide Matthew Benson said his boss "is prepared to give it a thorough review if and when it is approved and sent to her for her consideration."

Specifics of the bill aside, that still leaves the question of whether Brewer or other Republicans see the whole fight as a political liability. That was suggested by McCain when he appeared more than a week ago on Meet the Press.

"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.


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