Latest topic in swing-state Colo.: Contraceptives, religious freedom

Ann Imse/Colorado Public News

Sandra Fluke, the controversial recent Georgetown Law School graduate, introduced President Obama at Auraria Campus in Denver.

By Ann Imse
Colorado Public News

DENVER – President Barack Obama chose to be introduced at a rally in Denver on Wednesday by recent Georgetown law school graduate Sandra Fluke, who was vilified by right-wing pundits for supporting insurance coverage for contraception.

Obama’s two-day, multicity Colorado campaign tour came just days after a Catholic-owned Colorado company won a court reprieve in a fight against having to provide insurance coverage for contraception based on its religious beliefs.

Both issues underscore the president’s clear position: that women’s rights to health insurance – and to make their own health-care decisions – are more important to him than private employers’ rights to refuse to provide contraception coverage.

Neither Obama nor Fluke said women’s health was more important than religious freedom, but that is the side his administration is supporting in the Colorado court case. And Obama’s likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has accused the president of waging a war on religion – just as the Obama campaign has accused Romney of waging a war on women.

Several new polls show Obama and Romney virtually tied in Colorado, considered a critical swing state for the outcome of the November election.

Fluke, then a law student, testified before Congress in February in favor of contraception. She was subsequently attacked by radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

During last week’s Denver rally, Obama echoed what many others have since pointed out: 99 percent of American women use contraception in their lifetimes – including for reasons other than birth control.

Introducing Obama to the rally crowd of 4,000, Fluke said that women can’t believe this debate has been revived, 50 years after birth control changed American life.

Women “are shocked that we’re discussing access to contraception in 2012,” she said.

Obama followed up in his speech: “I don’t think your boss should decide the health care that you get. I don’t think politicians should control the health care that you get.”

That spoke directly to the court case in Colorado. On July 27, Denver-based Hercules Industries won a federal court preliminary injunction against the new requirement that the company’s health insurance cover contraception. Hercules Industries, owned by four Catholic siblings, is a heating and air conditioning company.

Senior federal district court Judge John Kane ruled in the case that religious freedom outweighed the goal of providing contraception and health care.

The controversy has its roots in the Democratic health-care law, but the requirement to provide preventive care – including contraception – is in a related regulation. Some religious organizations such as churches are exempt. Others, including religious universities such as Georgetown, got a compromise – and some don’t like the compromise.

As a result of those exceptions, Fluke told Colorado Public News she doesn’t see Americans having to make a choice between freedom of religion and the freedom to control their own health decisions. “I don’t think it’s a choice. ... Those are rights Americans value absolutely,” she said.

But there is no exemption for religious business owners such as the Newland family, which owns Hercules Industries.

“The Newland family in this case provides very generous health benefits, and all they ask is that the government not force them to violate their faith by making them provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization, just because they are trying to earn a living and create jobs and do that in the United States of America,” said attorney Matt Bowman, attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing Hercules Industries.

He argued in court papers that the government could pay for contraception itself instead of requiring employers to do so.

Fluke sees the Colorado case very differently.

“The owners of the business want to limit access to health care for their employees. And that to me seems a very dangerous proposition and not where most Americans want to see the law go. I think Americans want to decide for themselves about their religious identity and their health care and don’t want to turn those decisions over to their employer.”

On the other side, Bowman maintains: “Every American, including family business owners, should be able to live and do business according to their faith. And the government should not be stifling the very religious freedoms that it exists to protect.”

The plaintiffs’ brief said the penalty for failing to provide coverage for contraception could rise to $100 per employee per day – or a prohibitive $26,500 per day for Hercules’ 265 employees. That’s nearly $10 million a year.

The plaintiffs said in court papers that halting health insurance for their employees would incur a penalty of up to $2,000 per employee per year, or up to $530,000 a year for Hercules Industries.

Colorado Public News, a nonprofit news organization, reports on issues of statewide interest. It partners with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station.

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