Missouri lawmakers voted Wednesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto and allow employers to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for birth control if doing so violates their religious convictions.
But almost immediately after the vote, a Kansas City firefighter and the Greater Kansas City Coalition of Labor Union Women filed a lawsuit asking a judge to throw the new law out.
The Republican-led House and Senate each met the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor's veto of a bill that states no employer or health insurance provider can be compelled to provide coverage for contraception, abortion or sterilization.
"This is a victory for Catholics, people of all faiths, and more specifically, Missouri citizens who value religious liberty," the Archdiocese of St. Louis said in a statement, later adding that the override vote was "a powerful pro-life statement, one that gives us hope that conscience rights will be extended to all U.S. citizens."
In the Senate, the vote to override was 26 to 6, with one Republican joining five Democrats in opposition.
However, the real drama was in the Missouri House, where the override was successful by a 109 to 45 vote, the minimum required by the state Constitution.
The deciding vote was cast by Rep. Chris Molendorp, a Belton Republican and an insurance agent who was the only member of his party to oppose the birth control bill when it originally passed in May.
A visibly distraught Molendorp left the House floor and did not participate in a Republican press conference after the vote. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
Nixon vetoed the bill this summer, arguing that Missouri law already gives employers the freedom to omit these types of coverage in their health plans on religious grounds.
But this bill, the governor contended, went one step too far by giving insurance companies the power to deny contraception coverage -- even if an employee wants it and is willing to pay for it.
The bill "stands between a woman and their right to make their own personal decisions about whether to use birth control. That is not the right path forward for Missouri," Nixon said.
The governor later added: "It's a shame we're still debating access to birth control in 2012."
Proponents of the bill, however, said it was a direct response to an Obama administration policy that requires health insurance plans to cover contraception. The policy does not pertain to abortion and includes an exemption for religious organizations.
Sen. John Lamping, a Ladue Republican who sponsored the legislation, said the Obama administration's policy will force employers to choose between "their religiously held beliefs and this mandate."
"This is not an issue about access," Lamping said. "All employees still have access to these services. This is an issue about who pays for them."
The lawsuit challenging the new law, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, alleged that because it conflicts with federal law it must be thrown out. Plaintiffs also contended the new law violates the Missouri Human Rights Act, which protects workers against discriminatory employment practices based on, among other things, gender and religion.
"We consider this move to be just another right-wing assault on workers limiting our members' options and choices," said Edward Keenan, an attorney representing the firefighter and union. "Our message is loud and clear: When you attack workers' access to health care, labor fights back."
Newly elected House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, said he's confident the law will ultimately be upheld by the courts. "I think our statute is constitutionally defensible," Jones said.
Critics of the bill warned it would likely lead to numerous lawsuits, pointing out that insurance companies would be forced to choose between violating state or federal law. But more importantly, they argued that it would limit a woman's access to birth control.
"Women depend on family planning and birth control access to plan their families, which determines their economic status," said state Rep. Stacey Newman, a Richmond Heights Democrat. "Women are listening, and they are watching what we do here today."
State Rep. Sandy Crawford, a Buffalo Republican and the bill's House sponsor, said there is nothing in the new law that would prevent women from obtaining birth control. They would just have to pay for it themselves, she said.
"This bill is about protecting our religious liberties," Crawford said. "This bill does not prohibit the sale or purchase of contraception."
But making it more difficult to obtain birth control could put many women and families in a difficult fiscal situation, said Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.
"Birth control is not just basic, preventive health care for women, it is a pocketbook issue," Brownlie said. "Without this new birth control coverage benefit, many women will now have to continue paying $15 to $50 a month on top of their premium. When you live paycheck to paycheck, that's a lot of money."
According to the reproductive health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, nearly 700,000 women in Missouri use some form of birth control.
In urging her colleagues to support the governor's veto, state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, said anyone who opposes abortion should support making contraception more readily available to women.
"If you are pro-life, be pro-life. That's OK," Nasheed said. "But tell the truth. Contraception is not the same as abortion. In fact, contraception prevents abortion and unwanted children."
This is the second time Nixon has seen one of his vetoes overturned, and only the 24th veto override in the state's history. Since 1900, the General Assembly had managed to override a governor's veto only seven times before Wednesday's vote.
Lawmakers also were expected to attempt to override the Nixon's veto of another bill that allowed local governments to continue collecting sales taxes on out-of-state vehicle purchases.
Jones said it was his hope that the votes would be there to reinstate the tax, but many of his fellow Republicans had issues with the bill.
Early in the day, Jones said the number of Republicans supporting an override was "somewhere in the 80s," meaning they would need 20 to 30 Democrats to join them in order to override the governor's veto.
Unable to generate enough support, Republicans didn't bring the sales tax bill forward for a vote.