Vermont House to Take up Debate on Religious Exemption for Contraceptives

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A day after a divided U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over a religious exemption from the requirement that employer-sponsored health plans cover contraceptives, lawmakers in Vermont appeared ready to pass the mandate without any exemptions.

The Vermont House was slated to take final action Thursday on a bill requiring employer-sponsored health plans to cover contraceptives and sterilizations, including vasectomies, without imposing high co-pays and deductibles on subscribers.

After preliminary approval by a vote of 128 to 15 on Wednesday, House Speaker Shap Smith voiced a sentiment common to the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office.

"Today the House voted to remove barriers for those who seek to use birth control," Smith said. "At a time when some states are doing everything they can to restrict basic reproductive health measures, I am proud that the House is taking action to improve Vermont's public health outcomes."

After the lopsided preliminary vote, Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, complained that "this bill does not include religious exemption for institutions or religious believers."

That concern was slated to be aired again when the bill came up for a final vote. Two Republican lawmakers, Reps. Janssen Willhoit of St. Johnsbury and Vicki Strong of Albany, planned to offer an amendment saying that if religious employers request one, "a health insurer shall make available a health insurance plan that does not provide coverage for contraceptive services."

Thursday's vote was to come a day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Zubik vs. Burwell, in which religious groups are arguing that to require them to fill out paperwork to exempt themselves and affiliated organizations from the birth control coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act is too onerous and impinges on their religious liberty.

The court, reduced to eight justices since the death last month of Justice Antonin Scalia, appeared evenly divided on the question. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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