PHOENIX — Arizona state Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, said she did not anticipate the backlash she received for sponsoring a bill to exempt religiously affiliated employers from providing contraceptives in their employees’ health-care plans.
Lesko, the majority whip in the Arizona House of Representatives, said her home number was posted on the Internet. She received hundreds of emails personally attacking her and accusing her of launching a war on women. For more than a week, her office phone rang off the hook with vitriolic messages.
“Some of it was so vile, so disgusting, that my assistant didn’t want to deal with it,” said Lesko, who represents District 9 at the Arizona Statehouse.
Planned Parenthood of Arizona and the American Civil Liberties Union said the legislation — which was initiated by the Diocese of Phoenix and known as House Bill 2625 — would enable companies to fire their employees for using contraception. Planned Parenthood said the law uses religion as the basis for “chipping away at women’s access to birth control.”
“House Bill 2625 is only the latest item in a number of bills to restrict women’s access to preventive health care, taking personal medical decisions away from women and handing them over to politicians,” said Bryan Howard, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Arizona.
Lesko, a Missouri Synod Lutheran who said she has no personal objections to birth control, said she would not have voted for the bill if everything that her opponents said about it was true.
“I knew this would be controversial, but I didn’t think it would be distorted the way it was,” Lesko told the Register.
Arizona lawmakers passed the bill after it was amended to reflect that its exemption would only apply to companies whose articles of incorporation stipulate a religious affiliation. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the new law May 11.
The bill grants an exemption in Arizona’s contraceptive-coverage mandate for religiously affiliated employers, defined as entities whose articles of incorporation say that religious beliefs are central to their operating principles and for whom providing contraception could pose a moral conflict.
Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix was “tremendously supportive” of the measure, said diocesan spokesman Ronald Johnson. “This was a bill we initiated and was our top priority for the legislative session.” He and Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas issued a statement May 11 expressing gratitude for Brewer’s signature.
“HB 2625 will be very helpful in protecting religious liberty for religiously affiliated employers who have an objection to abortion inducing drugs and contraceptives,” the statement read. It pointed out that the new law will not preempt the federal HHS “contraceptive mandate,” but that if that controversial measure is struck down, the Arizona law would better protect religious freedom in the Grand Canyon State.
The bill’s supporters say there are few employers who will qualify for the exemption.
When the law takes effect in August, Arizona will be among 20 states that allow employers with religious exemptions from providing birth-control coverage in their employees’ health-care plans.
The bill was championed by the Arizona Catholic Conference, which has been pushing for an exemption since 2002, when the state began requiring birth-control coverage in employee health-insurance plans.
“It’s very rewarding for me, after all we’ve been through over the years,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference.
Johnson told the Register that the conference initiated the effort to pass an exemption and worked closely with the Alliance Defense Fund — a coalition of Christian attorneys — to compose the bill’s initial draft. The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative nonprofit, also advised on the bill.
“I’m really glad that religious freedom has been expanded in Arizona,” said Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who worked on drafting the bill.
Bowman told the Register that the new state law “empowers” Arizona residents to challenge the looming federal mandate that all employers, including many religiously affiliated entities such as schools and universities, provide all federally approved forms of birth control by next summer.
“When states like Arizona protect the religious freedom of their citizens, they empower those citizens to go into court to protect their fundamental rights. [The law] allows them to sue the federal government and to be able to win,” Bowman said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services controversial mandate — which is set to take effect in August 2013 — would compel employers to pay for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients.
President Barack Obama proposed a purported compromise in February to shield religious employers from paying directly for those services, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the president’s proposal did not address their religious-freedom concerns.
On Monday, 43 Catholic dioceses and other organizations, including the University of Notre Dame, filed religious-liberty lawsuits against the federal government in a dozen jurisdictions. At least 11 other Catholic and evangelical organizations had already filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate.
Johnson said the Arizona bill could serve as an inspiration to those challenging the HHS mandate and encourage other states to fight for their citizens’ religious freedom.
“We’re sending a message that religious freedom is an extremely important issue and that we are not taking this lying down,” Johnson said.
In a prepared statement, Brewer said her state’s “commonsense” bill ensured that Arizona women still had access to health services while protecting religious institutions.
“Let’s not forget why we’re having this discussion: Obamacare that created this issue by forcing church-affiliated employers and nonprofits to offer services in violation of their religious faith,” Brewer said.
“I just felt my legislation was the right thing to do. It’s something I believe in, and that is why I did it,” said Lesko, who also said the HHS mandate violates believers’ First Amendment rights.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for Catholics and all people of faith to be involved in public life,” Lesko said. “People need to stand up — and not let the other side bully us into silence.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.