As the legislature wraps up in Concord, Governor Sununu contemplates whether to veto HB 685, a bill that started its life as an innocuous ambulance billing provision and morphed into a policy that would shutter faith-based employers and lead to years of litigation.
If you aren’t familiar with HB 685, it might be because the bill did not go through regular order, so concerned citizens were unable to participate in the democratic process.
When I was in Concord testifying on a different bill in January, so many people showed up to testify that the hearing had to be moved to the House floor. Dozens of people weighed in, overwhelmingly on the pro-life side. So I know that New Hampshirites care about this issue.
But because of COVID-19, House leadership made the choice to bend the rules and shove HB 685 right through. There was no opportunity to testify on this bill in the House. There was no committee hearing, no floor vote on the bill as amended, all in violation of House rules. Our concerns should have been weighed by lawmakers, but instead they passed the bill as amended without hearing from the public.
So what is HB 685 anyway?
HB 685 requires employer-based health insurance to cover elective abortion if it covers maternity benefits. There is no explicit exemption made for faith- or values-based employers (such as a religious school, advocacy organization, or pregnancy resource center) who might have a religious or moral objection to paying for abortion.
Many faith-based employers would be put in the no-win situation of ending their coverage for maternity benefits, paying for abortions, or closing their doors. For most people of faith, any of these options violate their conscience as they want to provide maternity benefits and encourage family formation but simply cannot participate in abortion. Our communities would be worse off without robust nonprofits participating in the political process and serving their neighbors.
While the bill allows that the commissioner may grant a narrow exemption, there is no guarantee that this would ever happen. Will the commissioner grant an exemption? Who might be eligible for that exemption? New Hampshire should not pass this bill to find out.
New Hampshire is one of just four states that does not explicitly protect conscience rights in the abortion context, so there is not even a robust state constitutional protection for these individuals to fall back on. This is simply too inflexible, especially as just last week the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Little Sisters of the Poor, reaffirmed the ability and necessity of government to provide exemptions for faith-based employers when other methods of satisfying the government’s interests will suffice.
Any impacted employer would have to request an exemption or file a lawsuit to find out whether they are eligible to participate in the marketplace in New Hampshire. In the meantime, they would have to hire employees who are residents of neighboring states since the bill extends elective abortion coverage only to New Hampshire residents or pressure current employees to move if they wanted maternity benefits. That seems pretty extreme when there are myriad ways for women to obtain elective abortions that do not require faith-based employers to pay for them. This is a one-size-fits-all policy that has the outcome of some employees ultimately receiving fewer benefits.
The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to push through bad policy without hearing from voters because lawmakers might not like what they have to say. There was not even an opportunity to submit written testimony on this bill. At a minimum, lawmakers should wait until next year to follow proper process and give the people a say in a law that will affect their employment benefits packages and health insurance plans.
This is bad policy that does not adequately protect the rights of conscience of thousands of New Hampshire residents and will result in confusion, stress, and ultimately, litigation. Governor Sununu should veto HB 685.
Katie Glenn serves as government affairs counsel for Americans United for Life, America’s oldest nonprofit pro-life legal organization working in all 50 states since 1971.