ATLANTA -- Women members of the Georgia Senate staged a brief demonstration against the Republican and male majority in the Senate, complaining that the GOP is waging a war -- against women and their access to abortion and contraceptives.
Eight of the nine women senators -- the eight women Democrats -- walked out of the Senate chamber in protest as the Republican majority passed two bills they oppose.
The Senate voted, 33 to 18, to prohibit state employees from using their state health benefits to pay for abortions.
And the Senate decided, by a vote of 38 to 15, that employees of private religious institutions have no right to demand that their insurance policies pay for contraceptives, as the Obama Administration wants to require.
Sen. Mike Crane, the sponsor of the abortion coverage bill, urged support of the legislation as a vote to save taxpayer dollars and make a pro-life statement. He emphasized that the bill does not prevent abortions.
Both bills were immediately sent to the House, where Republicans also hold the majority.
As for the contraceptives issue, it was in 1999 when the women's caucus in the Georgia legislature first won passage of the current state law that requires insurance companies to cover the cost of contraceptives.
"It's a good law. Never had a problem with it," said Sen. Nan Orrock, (D) Atlanta. "But here come the right-wing shock troops, marching, marching, marching. And women are on the bullseye target."
But, as McKoon explained it, many religious organizations are self-insured and therefore have not been subject to that 1999 law. As a result, they have not had to include coverage for contraceptives for their employees. But, he said, under the new, federal health care mandates, self-insurers will fall under state regulation of the insurance industry. So McKoon's bill would exempt religious employers from being required to cover the cost of contraceptives -- as the state's 1999 law currently says everyone but self-insurers must do.
"If they were forced into a situation where they had to choose, many of them would simply choose not to offer health insurance at all" rather than be forced to pay for contraceptives, McKoon said. "So I think, far from denying access to care, we're going to make sure people continue to be insured if this [federal] mandate does come into play."
Sen. McKoon said he filed the legislation in response to a recent Obama administration decision that seeks to guarantee employees of religion-affiliated institutions reproductive health coverage, which would include contraception.
Opposition to the Obama rule led the administration to shift the burden from religious organizations to insurance companies.
McKoon said the Senate bill "carries a very narrow exemption for religious employers who have an objection, a religious, conscious objection, to providing contraception coverage."
"What we're seeing here is an ideological battle that's being waged to make women a target, to take our access to our Constitutional right of privacy and also our ability to make our health decisions with our doctor and our own best judgment," Sen. Orrock said. "And it's government intruding into that decision. The origins of this bill are ideological, it's coming from an extreme, right, fundamental point of view. And that doesn't bode well for women in Georgia."
"What I would say is the war that's being waged is on a relative minority in this country that has strong beliefs that are protected by the First Amendment," said McKoon. "It's a religious liberty question... I think we might get a legal challenge and if we do I feel confident that we will be successful, because this is a baseline, First Amendment, free exercise issue."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)