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Federal decision on contraceptives sparks political firefight in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 9, 2012 - The Obama administration's decision that all health plans must cover federally approved contraceptives as of 2013 has touched off a political storm in Missouri, where opponents are framing the issue as an attack on religious freedom.

UPDATE: U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters Thursday that he does not see room for compromise with the White House. He predicted a Senate vote on the issue, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Thursday blocked Blunt's initial effort to add an amendment to the highway bill that would reverse the birth-control rule. 

Blunt said, "There are probably no compromises acceptable on this issue. It's a First Amendment issue. It's not about two or three things that happen to be immediately objectionable. I met with the Catholic bishops yesterday ... and their view is, 'We don't want to fight this, one item at a time.' This is a religious liberty issue."

"If you listen carefully to what the White House is saying ...they are saying, 'We want to help you comply with the rule. They are really not saying, 'We want to change the rule,' " Blunt continued.

Does he have any concerns about a backlash from women who believe contraceptives should be covered under health plans? "I haven't received contact from people who work for Catholic institutions that their health care plan is not good enough," the senator said. "The other side will try to turn this into: 'This is about contraception for all women.' [But] this particular thing is about whether a faith-based institution has to provide health coverage to its employees that violate its faith principles."

If the issue is presented in those terms, Blunt said, "There's no reason any suburban woman in Missouri or anywhere else would be concerned about this, unless their friends who work at the hospital are coming to them and say, 'You know, this is terrible. I've got this great health-care plan, but it doesn't include something that costs me $20 a month or $30 a month or $50 a month." END UPDATE

Blunt  was on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon predicting that Congress will overturn the order if the White House doesn't back down.

All three Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate are accusing Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., of siding with federal officials on the ruling or, at minimum, of exhibiting a "cavalier attitude,'' as GOP candidate John Brunner put it, in a Tweet.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the state Republican Party launched a radio ad attacking McCaskill on the issue, and tying it to the federal health insurance changes approved in 2010, which she supported.  END UPDATE

McCaskill appeared on KMOX Radio Tuesday afternoon and, when asked, tried to defuse the issue. Among other things, she said she hoped that the Obama administration will come up with a compromise to assuage Catholic hospitals and other religious-affiliated institutions that object to providing contraceptive coverage.

McCaskill, who is Catholic, disagreed with critics who contend the regulation is an attack on religion. "The goal here is ... let's not have barriers to birth control," she said on Mark Reardon's radio show. "And, frankly, I think the bishops may not realize how many members of their churches -- how many parishioners -- use birth control."

She emphasized that 28 states already have a similar requirement regarding contraceptive coverage. "Many states have dealt with this," she said. "In Hawaii, they allowed for a 'rider' situation when they did this carve-out, and only one religiously-run business in Hawaii took the exemption. I'm hoping that we can find some solution like that."

McCaskill's comments came amid poll results showing that a majority of Catholic women use, or have used, contraception, despite church teachings against most forms of birth control.

Legislator Proposes Constitutional Amendment

Meanwhile, in Missouri's state Capitol, opponents already are moving swiftly to broaden the issue. Opponents of the federal regulation want to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to bar its implementation in Missouri.

The proposal's sponsor -- state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville -- said he has been conferring with the Missouri Catholic Conference, but he believes other socially conservative Protestant groups also will get involved in the campaign.

Rupp said the proposal would amend Missouri's constitution "to state that no law or rule can force an individual, employer or health-care provider to perform certain medical services contrary to their religious beliefs."

"The federal government does not give us our rights and President (Barack) Obama does not give us our rights," said Rupp. "Our rights are given to us by God. This amendment lets Missourians vote to protect our God-given rights from overreaching federal health-care mandates."

To skirt Gov. Jay Nixon, the proposal is a joint resolution that simply requires majority approval in the state House and Senate to go directly on the ballot. Rupp said the approach is identical to the effort that successfully led to the August 2010 statewide passage of Proposition C, which sought to exempt Missouri from some of the federal health insurance law, notably the mandate.

"Missouri can be a leader on this (contraceptive issue), as we are on health-care freedom," Rupp said.

Rupp's release said the aim is to get the proposed amendment on the November ballot, but the senator said in an interview that he would prefer to see the proposal on the August ballot -- when it can get more attention and not get caught up in presidential politics.

The regulation's opponents also are organizing a rally in Jefferson City.

Start of update: State Sen. John Lamping, R-Frontenac, points to his own bill -- which received a first-read by the Senate last week, that seeks to exempt religious-run institutions from offering insurance that covers contraception and other reproductive services. Lamping's bill also would require the Missouri attorney general to prosecute anyone deemed to violating those protections.

Republican state attorney general candidate Ed Martin also held a conference call today, in which he called for Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat seeking re-election, to get involved by resisting the federal regulation. Koster has said nothing yet on the subject. End update

Senate Contest Erupts Over Issue

But the most immediate political fallout is in Missouri's U.S. Senate race, already one of the most closely watched in the country.

After weeks of fighting among themselves, the three Republicans vying to replace McCaskill in the U.S. Senate have a common cause in highlighting their opposition to the federal regulations -- which all cast in terms of religious freedom.

"This is yet another example of how this administration, under Obama/McCaskill, continually stomps all over the Constitution," said former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who was first to go on the attack. "This mandate by HHS is in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, and for our senator, Claire McCaskill, to sit passively on the sidelines while our freedom of religion is stripped in front of our very eyes is atrocious."

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, blasted what he viewed as McCaskill's "willingness to be an accomplice in this outrageous bureaucratic mandate betrays the public trust. This decision goes beyond people's choice of abortion or contraception. It is rather the ham-fisted imposition of a federal mandate with patent disregard for the conscience and beliefs of millions of Americans."

Brunner, meanwhile, has sent a letter to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlsonin which in the candidate praises the religious leader for his opposition. Carlson on Sunday sent a letter to area Catholics challenging the Obama adminstration's directive.

Brunner, in his letter to the archbishop, wrote: "I stand with you in your assessment that forcing employers of faith to offer health coverage that conflicts with church doctrine represents an assault on Americans' religious freedom, which should not be allowed to stand." "If I were in the U.S. Senate today, I would immediately sign on as a co-sponsor of S. 1467, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt."

McCaskill said on the radio that the issue was over access to birth control, not religion.

"If I work in the cafeteria at a hospital on one side of Interstate 270 and my sister works at a hospital on the other side of I-270, should my availability of birth control be determined by what organization runs the hospital?" she asked.

"I get the point that everybody's upset about," the senator continued. "But I also understand this: If we would put half as much energy into trying to figure out how to prevent abortions as we put in trying to criminalize women and doctors, and fighting access to birth control, it would be amazing how low we could get the abortion rate in this country."

Blunt said during his Senate floor speech that the Obama administration had dramatically mishandled the issue. "I saw one of the president's advisers early this morning begin to back away from this and say ... 'We're just seeking information during this year,'" Blunt said, referring to the delay before the regulation is slated to go into effect.

"That's not what they were doing at all," Blunt continued. "What they were doing is saying, 'You're going to comply with this rule, and we're going to give you a year to figure out how to compromise your principles in a way that applies.' And that's a wrong thing to do."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.