JEFFERSON CITY— Thousands of people crammed into the Missouri Capitol and spilled out across its lawn Tuesday as religious groups and unions held nearly simultaneous rallies decrying federal health care policies and state legislation affecting workers.
Inside the Capitol, thousands of people clad in red condemned President Barack Obama's policy requiring insurance companies to cover the costs of providing free birth control to women working at religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and colleges. Church leaders from several Christian denominations said religious freedoms are under assault.
Outside the Capitol, thousands of union members wearing bright orange and green shirts rallied against efforts by the Republican-led legislature to pare back wage requirements on public works projects and to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state in which union dues cannot be a condition of employment. Rally leaders said workers' rights are under assault.
The combined crowd for two gatherings was one of the largest in the past decade at the Missouri Capitol, which hosts events for interest groups on a nearly daily basis during the legislative session. The Capitol Police provided no official crowd estimate.
Adding to the intensity of the religious rally was the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing arguments Tuesday on a challenge to the constitutionality of the 2010 federal health care law, which requires most Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty beginning in 2014. Also stirring the crowd was the fact that both the state Senate and House of Representatives were debating legislation on Tuesday intended to push back against Obama's health care policies.
"The Obama administration has declared war on religion and freedom of conscience," Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Director John Yeats said at the rally in the Capitol rotunda, where cheers and applause echoed loudly off the stone walls.
Rally participant Shirley Church, 73, who traveled to the Capitol from the western Missouri town of Belton, called Obama's insurance requirement for contraception one of the "most critical issues in America today" because of its encroachment on religious freedom.
"We're going to have to stand up, we cannot back down, we cannot give in to this. If we did, we would be betraying Christ Jesus," Church told a reporter.
Shortly after the religious rally, the Missouri Senate gave initial approval to legislation allowing employers to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control and sterilization procedures, unless a doctor deems the treatments to be medically necessary. The bill also would allow the state attorney general to sue the federal government if federal officials move to force employers to include birth control coverage in their insurance plans.
The House, meanwhile, gave initial approval to legislation allowing health care institutions or workers to refuse to participate in abortions, sterilizations, embryonic stem cell research or other procedures that violate their beliefs.
The House bill was endorsed with almost no debate. But some Democrats delayed a vote in the Senate before finally relenting with a declaration that the legislation was a "do-nothing" bill that duplicates some provisions already in state law with the intent of appeasing religious voters.
Nonetheless, "this is an anti-woman bill," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County. "You're trying to tell me what to do with my own body."
The Senate was expected to debate legislation Wednesday limiting the "prevailing wage" that must be paid on some public works projects, including when rebuilding after disasters. That legislation was one of several proposals that drew the ire of the union members who gathered Tuesday at the Capitol.
"All these issues aren't just union issues, they're workers' issues," said Ed Finkelstein, a spokesman with the Building and Construction Trades Council. "As they affect workers, they affect the whole economy."
Among those addressing the union crowd from the Capitol steps were Gov. Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster and Treasurer Clint Zweifel, all Democrats. Nixon already has vetoed two bills relating to workers' legal options that Republicans contend are needed to make Missouri more attractive to businesses. One would have made it harder to win workplace discrimination lawsuits; the other would have brought occupational diseases under the workers' compensation system, potentially limiting the money that could be won through lawsuits. Nixon has said both would have turned back the clock on workers' rights.
"They're just deciding that they want to build the future of this economy by attacking working people," Nixon said. "Together, we're putting a steel-curtain-style defense in place and fending off those fights."