AZ birth control bill could raise tricky legal issues

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AZ birth control bill could raise tricky legal issues

CREATED Mar 16, 2012

Reporter: Craig Smith

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Governor Jan Brewer is weighing in on the state's birth control bill.
It would let employers opt out of insurance coverage for birth control based on their religious beliefs.
Women could get the pill for other medical reasons-- but would have to prove they need it.
Friday, Brewer said she sees how the bill could make women, "uncomfortable."
She admitted she has not yet studied the bill, and does not know whether she would sign or veto it.
People pushing for the new law say it's to help employers retain religious freedom by not forcing them to pay for contraception that they may not agree with. 

But an a specialist in employment law tells KGUN 9 On Your Side the law could create a world of new problems for any employer trying to use it.

If the bill becomes law it could apply to large sophisticated Catholic hospital groups, with large legal and HR departments to implement it---and it could apply to very small companies with no budget for legal help, but an employment attorney tells us that bill could give lawyers a work-out.

For ten years, Arizona law has given religious organizations like churches the right to not cover contraception.
The proposed new law would extend to companies like Catholic hospitals and to any employer with a moral objection to birth control.
Bishop Gerald Kicanis has not been involved with the proposed state law.  He has been very active in a national debate with Federal authorities.  The issue: whether Catholic organizations which serve more than Catholics can still deny employees contraceptives based on Catholic doctrine against birth control.

Bishop Kicanis says, "This is not an issue about contraception.  It's not an issue about partisan politics, although it has become a partisan issue.  For the Church it is a concern about a government's intrusion into the right of a religion to define how it will serve others."
State Rep Debbie Lesko (R-Glendale), who sponsored Arizona's bill says it's about freedom for employers and says opponents are spreading lies that it would let a boss fire a woman for using birth control.

Rep. Lesco says, "The employer would not be asking an employee if they use contraceptives of not and they certainly could not fire them.  My bill does nothing of that sort."
Employment attorney Don Awerkamp says the proposed law does remove protection against firing over religion.

"But there are protections for employees in the Arizona Civil Rights Act, for example, which they haven't touched yet."
Awerkamp thinks the bill opens the door for employers with religious beliefs against smoking and alcohol, for example, to apply them to employees.

Awerkamp says the bill gives religious objections against birth control more legal standing than religious objections to smoking for instance, the health consequences it could have and the insurance expense it could lead to.  He thinks an employer could say his belief should have the same weight and that could force this concept to expand.

He says, "It is really inviting employers to look at their employees religious beliefs and see how they contradict with their own and try to manipulate those religious beliefs by making it more financially difficult to live in accordance with their own."

While Awerkamp says State and Federal Civil Rights law should protect an employee against firing over religion, you could have to sue to prove that---and an employee, or a small business owner may not have the resources to do that.