While the battle over birth control, women's rights and religious freedom rages in Washington, Republicans in New Hampshire are firing a preemptive strike, aiming to reverse a 12-year-old state law requiring health plans with prescription coverage to include contraceptives.
Republican House Speaker William O'Brien is leading the charge to allow employers with religious objections to exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans. He believes the law as it stands can be legally challenged.
"It's unconstitutional because we have a First Amendment to the federal constitution that says we're supposed to respect religious beliefs," O'Brien said. "We've never said to people who hold long-established religious beliefs that they have to be subject to laws that cause them to violate those beliefs and New Hampshire law shouldn't provide for that and that's why we're putting in a religious exemption to the statute."
The bill passed the Republican-dominated House and now heads to the Republican-heavy Senate where Senate Democratic Leader Sylvia Larsen says constituents are telling her they are mystified, asking, "What's going on in there? Why? We need to be focusing on jobs and the economy and here we are fighting things we thought were done 40 years ago."
Larsen is hopeful Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, will veto the bill if it should pass. The measure is expected to be addressed in April.
"It's beginning to feel like there's a war on women right now and I think women across the state are waking up," said Larsen. "I think women are rising up. Moderate women are, Republicans and Democrats, independents, saying get out of my bedroom. This is my private choice with my husband, family members, my doctors. This is something which government should not be in so I think we'll see some voices becoming louder over time."
Both sides see the debate here as an extension of national strife.
While Larsen says Republicans are disconnected, O'Brien says he believes the Obama administration created the debate to woo women voters.
"This isn't about contraception. This isn't about the merits of the religious beliefs of the Catholic Church," O'Brien said. "What this is truly about is the Obama administration trying to divide its way into a 51 percent majority."
A new CBS/New York Times poll out Tuesday showed nationally 51 percent of voters say employers should be allowed to opt out of covering birth control based on religious or moral objections. That's compared to 40 who say it should be covered. The same poll taken March 7-11 also found that 57 percent believe religiously affiliated employers should be allowed to opt out compared to 36 percent who say they should be required to cover birth control.
About the debate in general 51 percent said it was a women's rights and health issue compared to 37 percent who said it's a matter of religious freedom.
University of New Hampshire Law Professor Albert Scherr says the proposed state law, even if it passes, would be completely symbolic.
"This seems directed at group insurance so the so-called preemption doctrine which says if the federal government has staked out an area and the state passes something that conflicts with that then the federal law trumps it," said Prof. Scherr.
While legal scholars argue the federal mandate requiring insurance providers to include contraceptive coverage will trump exemption efforts at the state level, O'Brien remains hopeful with a keen eye on the Supreme Court, where he believes much of the Obama health care overhaul will be deemed unconstitutional.