NH college president calls for change to state contraception rule

By Benjamin Mann

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As controversy and lawsuits continue over the federal contraception mandate, the president of New Hampshire's College of St. Mary Magdalene is calling for changes to a similar law in his state.

“The state of New Hampshire is interfering with our ability to be fully Catholic and violating our religious freedom,” Dr. George Harne told a Constitutional Review and Statutory Committee of the New Hampshire state legislature on Feb. 23.

The legislature is considering whether to amend an existing state law that requires employers to offer coverage of contraception and sterilization in their health plans. Passed in 2000 by a Republican legislature, the law imposes a mandate similar to the controversial new federal rule.

The national mandate, containing only a narrow exemption for certain kinds of religious institutions, was finalized Feb. 10 over the objections of the U.S. Catholic bishops and others. Seven state attorneys general sued the federal government on Feb. 23, seeking to have the rule declared unconstitutional.

In the wake of that national controversy, some New Hampshire legislators have moved to introduce a religious freedom exemption into their own state's existing contraception coverage mandate.

Due for a vote in early March, the proposed amendment would allow New Hampshire employers to opt out of covering the controversial “preventive services” in their health insurance plans.

Following Harne's testimony on Thursday, the review committee voted 10-6 to recommend a change in the law.

Harne told the committee that upon becoming president of the College of St. Mary Magdalene in 2011, he “undertook a complete review of every aspect of our institution to ensure that we were truly Catholic, not merely Catholic in name only.”

“Our commitment is firm. We will not compromise the Catholic identity of our College,” the president declared. “Every aspect of our identity must be consistent with the teachings of the Church.”

Republican House Speaker William O'Brien only recently learned that the state mandate existed – having discovered it while criticizing the president's similar national plan, according to the Associated Press.

At Thursday's hearing, O'Brien said it was “a true shame that this disastrous federal law has forced us to come here today to offer relief to people of faith to ensure they are not forced to buy a product that they believe is immoral.”

At the national level, O'Brien has accused President Obama of sacrificing religious freedom to win women's votes through mandated insurance coverage of contraception. He spoke out on Thursday against the “trampling on our religious rights by the president seeking electoral advantage.”

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union says it will sue to block the religious freedom exemption to the local contraception mandate, if it passes in the legislature.

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