JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon has been inundated with nearly 5,000 online messages, emails and letters as he mulls what to do with a politically thorny bill injecting Missouri into the national debate over insurance coverage for contraception.
The Republican-led legislature sent the Democratic governor a bill saying no employer or health plan provider can be compelled to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization or abortion if those items run contrary to their religious or moral convictions. The bill would allow the attorney general to sue government officials or others who infringe on the rights granted in the measure.
Nixon's office has received more than 4,700 messages — more than any on other bill this year — urging him to sign or veto the legislation. The number of veto pleas appeared roughly double that of signature requests in a stack of 3,100 messages provided to The Associated Press under a records request. Many of the messages, particularly in opposition to the bill, appeared to be form letters.
The governor has until July 14 to sign or veto the legislation; otherwise, the measure automatically takes effect — something Nixon has allowed each of the past two years with abortion bills. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the insurance bill will be "thoroughly reviewed."
Plenty of people are awaiting the outcome of that review.
Opponents of the legislation sent nearly 1,000 messages from May 18 through June 6 that appeared to be based upon a model from the Missouri Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization. The emails asked Nixon to veto the health insurance bill while noting the environmental group's support for access to family planning services and information. Chapter director John Hickey said the response from the organization's members has been the largest for any state issue.
Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws Pro-Choice Missouri also have urged supporters to ask Nixon to veto the legislation.
Among those sending an original message was Barbara Mitchell, who said she wants to be sure her daughters and other young women have access to the health care they need. Mitchell, from Chesterfield, said Nixon has tried so hard to govern from the political center that he has not always taken stands. Nonetheless, she said the governor seems to support women's rights and health issues and she would be shocked if Nixon does not veto the insurance legislation, which is Senate Bill 749.
"If you are the least bit progressive, you will not sign SB 749. If you are the least bit humane, you will not sign SB 749. If you have the least bit of common sense, you will not sign SB 749. If you want my vote in November, you will not sign SB 749," Mitchell wrote.
Controversy about health insurance coverage exploded this year when President Barack Obama's administration tried to require religious nonprofits serving the public to cover birth control through employee health plans. After a backlash, the policy was modified to require insurers, not religious employers, to bear responsibility for covering contraception.
Roman Catholic dioceses, universities and charities have filed numerous federal lawsuits, and rallies were held throughout the country earlier this month against the federal insurance requirement. At a rally outside the Missouri Capitol, speakers said religious freedoms are at stake. Supporters gathered signatures on several large poster boards urging Nixon to sign the state health insurance legislation.
Missouri residents wrote in numerous emails to Nixon's office that abortion is not health care and asked the governor to "protect our religious liberties" and individual conscience. Many sent similarly phrased messages urging the governor to "put aside political calculations," while others wrote that "it's not about free pills; it's about religious liberty." One man from the small northwestern Missouri town of Conception said that by signing the legislation, the state could set an example for the nation.
Catholic bishops from Missouri also sent letters urging Nixon to approve the legislation.
Sarah Suelter, who is Catholic, sent a message to the governor's office supporting the bill. The Kansas City resident, who works for an insurance company, said in an interview that she is concerned federal mandates could require people and institutions to buy insurance that covers contraception and other services that run contrary to what they believe. Suelter said it seems the separation between church and state is becoming blurred.
Urging Nixon to sign the measure, Suelter wrote: "I ask that you please consider all those you represent, Christian and non-denominational, born and unborn and realize the impact SB 749 will have on the future. Your signing of SB 749 is of the utmost importance as our nation moves forward on unsteady ground."