MONTPELIER >> A day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about a religious exemption to a requirement that employer-sponsored health plans provide coverage for contraceptives, the Vermont House defeated a narrower exemption on Thursday.
Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday centered on whether religiously affiliated organizations, including schools and hospitals, should be allowed to opt out of providing employee health insurance coverage for contraceptives. The arguments appeared to split a court left with eight members since last month's death of Justice Antonin Scalia. And the case was described as possibly affecting President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the court, as well as this year's presidential election.
It was a different story in Vermont, which polls have found to be both the most liberal and least religious state, where the House passed a bill calling for contraceptives and sterilizations, including vasectomies, to be covered under employer sponsored health plans, and barred those plans from charging copays and deductibles.
Passage on a voice vote Thursday followed a 107-33 defeat of an amendment by two Republicans that would have exempted not all religious organizations, but houses of worship, from the requirement that employer-sponsored health plans cover contraceptives and sterilizations.
"It allows more Vermonters to get access to contraceptive services without the cost barrier," said Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, a member of the Health Care Committee and a key backer of the bill.
Another benefit of the bill, Morris said, was that it will better compensate physicians and other health professionals who provide patients with long-acting, reversible contraceptives like the intrauterine device, or IUD.
"The savings (to state health care programs) come in the reduction of unintended pregnancies," Morris said. The roughly half of Vermont pregnancies that are unintended "tend to have much higher costs" including ending with cesarean section and other medical complications.
Most of the debate over the bill came on the religious exemption amendment, with supporters of that measure pointing to the religious freedom of employers and critics saying they gave priority to the religious freedom of employees.
"I feel strongly that we need to protect the rights of churches and houses of worship, which have been part of our culture for hundreds of years, to not violate their core beliefs and tenets," said Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany.
"Some argue that schools, hospitals or any place of employment have consciences and freedom of religion said Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, D-Burlington. "According to my Catholic tradition, women have consciences and deserve to exercise them without coercion."