JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers enacted new religious exemptions from insurance coverage of birth control Wednesday, overriding a gubernatorial veto and delivering a political rebuke to an Obama administration policy requiring insurers to cover contraception.
The Republican-led House and Senate each met the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who had asserted the measure was unnecessary and could allow insurers to refuse contraception coverage for women who want it.
The Senate vote was 26-6. The House vote was 109-45, the bare minimum needed for an override. The legislation took effect immediately as Missouri law.
"This bill is about protecting our religious liberties. This bill is about protecting businesses from the overreach of government," said Rep. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, who handled the legislation in the House.
The new Missouri law allows individuals, employers and insurers to cite religious or moral exemptions from mandatory insurance coverage for abortion, contraception and sterilization. It also gives the state attorney general — or other individuals and entities — grounds to file lawsuits claiming an infringement of rights if they are compelled to cover contraception.
Missouri lawmakers originally passed the measure in May in response to a policy by President Barack Obama's administration that requires insurers to cover birth control at no additional cost to women, including those employed by religiously affiliated nonprofits such as hospitals, colleges or charities. Several legal challenges are pending against the federal policy, claiming it infringes on religious liberties.
Some Democratic lawmakers predicted the new Missouri law also will trigger lawsuits, as insurers face a quandary of whether to comply with conflicting federal and state requirements.
"At best, this is a cheap political stunt that re-states current law. At worst, it just creates another obstacle to women accessing birth control," said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.
While vetoing the measure in July, Nixon said Missouri already has a strong religious exception for birth control.
A 2001 Missouri law states that birth control prescriptions shall be covered under policies that include pharmaceutical benefits at the same co-payment or deductible rates as other medications. That law also allows insurers to offer policies without contraception coverage to people or employers who say it violates their moral or religious beliefs. And the 2001 law ensures that people can purchase a plan with contraception coverage if their employer's plan does not offer it.
Missouri also has a 1983 law that prohibits abortion coverage in basic insurance policies, instead requiring the payment of an additional premium.
Nixon said in a written statement explaining his veto that by expanding the religious and moral exemption to insurers, the legislation "would signal a retreat from the liberties enjoyed by employers and employees under current law."