AUGUSTA — Female advocates and the ACLU of Maine are criticizing Attorney General William Schneider for entering the national debate over the proposed federal health care law requirement that religious organizations provide their employees with access to birth control.
Schneider and 11 other attorneys general on Feb. 10 sent a letter to the Obama administration opposing what they described as an unconstitutional mandate. The attorneys general, all Republicans, stated in the letter they were prepared to "vigorously oppose it in court."
The letter was not released by the Maine Attorney General's Office, although it was released by several of the other attorneys general who signed it. The letter was sent the same day the Obama administration announced a compromise to the original mandate, which allowed employees of religious organizations to request contraception coverage and required insurance companies to provide it without raising premiums.
The compromise doesn't appear to have changed Schneider's position. In a written statement Wednesday, he said he opposed the mandate on constitutional grounds.
"As a result of this federal mandate, many religiously affiliated organizations could now find that they have to act contrary to their religious beliefs and provide for free contraceptive coverage in their health plans," Schneider wrote. "This is precisely the kind of federal mandate that the First Amendment is intended to prohibit."
Shenna Bellows of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine said Schneider should remove his name from the letter.
"Religious liberty does not mean the right to impose religious views on others,” Bellows said. "Employers should not be able to impose their moral views about birth control on the women who work for them."
The ACLU and the Maine Women's Lobby noted that Schneider in 1999 supported Maine's contraception equality law when he was a member of the Maine House of Representatives. The law is similar to the compromise in the federal mandate in that it allows religious groups to apply for exemptions, but does not allow insurers for those groups to deny access to contraception coverage.
The state law received significant bipartisan support. Maine is one of 28 states with such laws, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Feb. 10 letter said the proposed regulations in the Affordable Care Act would compel religion-affiliated organizations, hospitals, universities and social service entities to subsidize contraceptive products and services that violate their religious beliefs.
"We are deeply troubled by the unprecedented coercion of organizations and individuals to act contrary to their religious beliefs," the letter read.
Bellows noted that religious freedom did not allow churches and Jesuit institutions to prevent access to birth control.
"This is so disappointing," Charlotte Warren of the Maine Women’s Lobby said in a statement. "At a time when so many Mainers are hurting already and organizations like ours are working to improve women’s health, we are now forced to fight against these bills that aim to reverse decades of progress for women’s health."
Schneider acknowledged that he supported the 1999 law, but said that action was different from what the federal health care law proposes.
"Maine law provides for insurance coverage for contraceptives and also provides a constitutional and broad exclusion for religious employers," he wrote, adding that the Maine law "recognized that state-mandated health insurance coverage had to be balanced with basic First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech and association."
Congress is considering legislation that would allow employers to prohibit their employees from accessing health care coverage for any procedures they find "morally objectionable." Groups such as the ACLU say such proposals are dangerous and could allow corporations and insurance companies to refuse coverage for services for birth control, maternity care, cancer screenings and AIDS treatment.
"All women should have access to contraception, have it without a co-pay, and have it no matter where they work," Ruth Lockhart, executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, said in a statement. "Asking for anything else is unfair — and flies in the face of what the vast majority of Mainers feel about the issue."
On the national level, several religious groups have embraced the Obama modification to the mandate, including Catholics United, the national umbrella organization for Catholic hospitals and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.
The compromise is still opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Maine's contraception law has gone unchallenged since it was adopted in 1999. Challenges to similar laws in New York and California were spurned by those states' Supreme Courts.