AUGUSTA — Democrats insisted all women deserve access to birth control.

The Catholic Church called mandatory health insurance coverage of contraceptives a violation of religious liberty.

It sounds a lot like the debate that has raged for the past several weeks in Washington, D.C. But that was the story in Maine in the spring of 1999.

Maine’s Legislature settled the issue relatively easily, adopting a contraception-coverage mandate by a wide margin and then, for the most part, forgetting all about it. Until now.

Maine has been swept into the national contraception debate, nearly 13 years after it appeared to have settled the issue. That was clear last week after the state attorney general’s stand against a federal contraception mandate ignited a backlash and revealed that Mainers still have strong feelings about the topic.

“A lot of people are outraged” about the federal mandate, said Marc Mutty, lobbyist for Maine’s Roman Catholic Diocese.

Many others are frustrated that birth control is even an issue anymore.

“It seems ridiculous that we are going back to arguing about birth control,” said Charlotte Warren, associate director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

The controversial federal rule, part of the 2010 health care reform law, requires employers to provide heath insurance coverage for contraceptives and other preventive health services. It exempts churches, but covers other religious organizations, including schools and hospitals.

It is more than a political dispute for many Mainers.

The federal mandate could directly affect the state’s Catholic schools, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as their employees. That’s because, despite Maine’s mandate, those employers do not provide workers with health insurance coverage for birth control.

Catholic schools have been exempt under Maine law, but won’t be under the federal mandate. Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and nonprofits are not exempt but avoided Maine’s mandate by becoming self-insured, which means that the employers pay medical claims directly.

Maine law applies only to employers that buy commercial insurance plans. The federal mandate will apply to commercial plans, too, but may also apply to employers that self-insure.

The Obama administration is seeking a compromise with religious employers who self-insure.

Among those watching closely is Catholic Charities of Maine, a nonprofit social service agency that is affiliated with Maine’s Catholic Diocese and has about 350 full-time employees.

“As a self-insured entity and a Catholic entity, we do not cover birth control,” said Bonny Bagley, associate director of the agency. “Being mandated to provide birth control really feels like an infringement on our religious liberty.”

The federal mandate is still being finalized after protests by the Catholic Church and others led to a reconsideration by the administration. The revised rule would expand contraceptive coverage without requiring religious employers to pay for it directly, the administration says.

But so far, that compromise has not settled the arguments.

Schneider supports both

Maine Attorney General William Schneider signed on to a Feb. 10 letter from 13 attorneys general calling the federal mandate an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of religious employers.

Schneider, as it happens, voted for the 1999 Maine contraception law as a Republican legislator. He said last week that he still supports access to contraception and is waiting to see the final details of the rule. But, he argued, federal law is more binding than Maine’s version because it doesn’t allow employers to simply not offer health insurance if the rules violate their beliefs.

When the Maine Women’s Lobby and other groups learned last week about Schneider’s stand, they launched an online petition drive to try to change his mind.

On Friday, all 32 Democratic women in the Maine Legislature urged him to take his name off the letter.

“Maine people believe women should have access to birth control no matter where they work,” they wrote.

The arguments had already been simmering in Maine for weeks, across kitchen tables, on Facebook and in church pews.

The head of the statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Bishop Richard Malone, criticized the federal mandate in a letter read to parishioners statewide. Each Sunday, priests call on parishioners to help defend the church’s constitutional right to practice its beliefs, which in this case hold that birth control is a sin.

“It’s really not about (birth control), and we do recognize that there are a number of Catholics who ignore the church’s teaching about that,” Mutty said. “It’s about defining religious freedom.”

The arguments also have been pouring into Maine’s congressional delegation, which may soon vote on proposals to limit the scope of the mandate. Staff members say the feedback has come from both sides, although criticism of the mandate swells during the day or two after Mass each Sunday.

Not all church members are critical. More than 100 Maine Catholics signed a petition supporting the revised rules that will be delivered to the congressional delegation Monday, according to Catholics United.

Snowe, Collins weighing issue

Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are still weighing the issue and waiting to see the final rule and how it will affect self-insured religious employers, according to their staffs.

U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, who voted for Maine’s law as state Senate president in 1999, has expressed support for the revised mandate.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, who sponsored the Maine law as state Senate majority leader, favors mandatory coverage of contraception no matter where a woman works.

Pingree said the issue is now far more politicized than in 1999, when Maine became one of the first five states to require insurance plans to cover contraception. Now there are 28.

“There was a lot of lobbying activity by the church. There was a huge debate on the floor (of the Maine Senate). In the end, people came to the conclusion it was the right thing to do,” Pingree said.

Maine’s Senate was unanimous, and the House voted yes by a 2-to-1 margin.

The contraception movement got a boost back then from former senator Bob Dole, who had become a spokesman for Viagra after his failed presidential campaign. At the time, the medication for erectile dysfunction was covered by insurance plans, while birth control pills and other contraceptives were not. The demand by women for equality outweighed objections about religious liberty.

Mutty, who lobbied on behalf of the Catholic Diocese at the time, argued for a broader religious exclusion but came away disappointed with a narrow exception for churches and religious schools.

Mutty agrees that the issue has become far more politicized now, in part because it has erupted in the midst of a presidential election year.

While the same issues were at stake in Maine in 1999, they generated far less public attention — and passion — than they are doing now. “There wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare over it,” he said.

John Richardson — 620-7016

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