WASHINGTON — Senator Scott Brown, entering a political thicket pitting women’s reproductive rights against beliefs of some religious institutions, is cosponsoring a bill that would allow employers and insurers to limit specific health care coverage, including contraception, based on religious or moral objections.
Brown last week became one of 37 senators, nearly all Republicans, who have signed on to support the bill introduced by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. The bill has gained momentum following the uproar surrounding President Obama’s January announcement that universities and hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church and other religious groups need to provide contraception as part of their employee health coverage.
The president, in a compromise, has since agreed to exempt the organizations as long as insurers provide the coverage.
Brown, however, said he does not believe the revised requirement goes far enough to protect religious liberty.
“This issue deals with one of our most fundamental rights as a people — the freedom of religion,’’ Brown, who faces a difficult reelection battle this fall against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, said yesterday. “No one should be forced by government to do something that violates the teachings of their faith.’’
Massachusetts advocates for women’s health pounced on the decision by Brown, who had voted to support contraception coverage when he was a state representative in 2002.
“It’s shocking that we’re having these debates about contraception in 2012, but this bill goes way beyond that, saying employers and health plans don’t have to provide coverage for any service they have a moral objection to,’’ said Dianne Luby, president of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “That can be in-vitro fertilization, HIV/AIDS testing, it could be anything.’’
Warren and other Democrats denounced the bill as a wholesale attack on health care that goes far beyond the controversy surrounding contraceptive coverage and religious freedom.
“It’s an assault on every family in Massachusetts,’’ Warren said in a phone interview. “It’s an extreme attack that opens the door to outright discrimination. I’m shocked that Senator Brown is cosponsoring this amendment. This would mean no one could count on basic health coverage.’’
Brown’s campaign responded by positioning Warren against working-class Catholics.
“It’s elitist for Elizabeth Warren to dictate to religious people about what they should believe and how they should act,’’ said Colin Reed, a spokesman for the Brown campaign. “She wants to use the power of government to force Catholics to violate the teachings of their faith.’’
Brown’s support of the bill could bolster his fund-raising from national groups and provide an opening with independent and Democratic Catholics, said Jeffrey Berry, a Tuft University political science professor.
“He cannot win this election unless he draws some Democrats,’’ Berry said. “There simply aren’t enough Republicans in Massachusetts.’’
Yesterday, Catholic and antiabortion groups in Massachusetts applauded Brown’s support of the Blunt amendment, choosing to focus on contraceptive coverage and what they consider the president’s insensitivity to religious freedom.
Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said the issue could boost support for Brown among the 200,000 members of the bipartisan group.
“We’re delighted that Scott Brown is looking out for the First Amendment rights of his constituents,’’ she said.
C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said that while Brown has had a “somewhat mixed record on sanctity of life issues, we’re gratified that he has modified his position.’’
“The principle is people should not be forced to violate their conscience as a condition of providing health insurance to their employees,’’ said Doyle, a former Democrat who is now unenrolled. “There is a remnant of socially conservative prolife Democrats and a larger remnant of former Democrats like myself who would view such a vote favorably.”
While in the Massachusetts Legislature, Brown had supported a 2002 law mandating contraception coverage but only after he voted for an amendment that would broaden the conscience clause to include religious hospitals, universities, and other organizations with similar objections. That amendment failed.
In 2005, in a debate about emergency contraception for rape victims, Brown offered an amendment that would have allowed hospital staff with religious reservations to be exempt from providing such contraception but would have required them to refer the victim to another hospital or another staff member. The Senate rejected his amendment and ultimately voted in favor of the bill to provide timely access to contraception.
The Blunt bill could come up for a vote in the next few days. Blunt’s office sent out a statement last night saying that the bill simply gives employers the same rights they had before health reform to negotiate a plan with a health insurance company that best fits their needs.
Most Democrats disagreed.
“This is an unprecedented license for any employer or insurance plan to exclude any health service so they could basically deny service to millions of people based on who-knows-what criteria,’’ said Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Luby, of Planned Parenthood, said she expects the contraceptive flare-up will drive women to the polls in November.
“It is a looming issue because it’s gone from abortion to contraception, and that really is going to wake up not just women, but men as well,’’ Luby said.