WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Senate has dealt a setback to the effort to protect religious freedom and conscience rights in the Obama administration’s controversial contraceptive/abortion mandate.
With a 51-48 vote, senators tabled an amendment Thursday (March 1) to guard the “religious beliefs or moral convictions” of those offering and purchasing insurance under the health care law enacted in 2010. By its action, the Senate refused to consider — and, in essence, killed — a proposal offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo., in response to a requirement under the law that all health insurance plans cover without cost to employees sterilizations and contraceptives, including those that can cause abortions.
The contraceptives, as designated by the federal government, include drugs — such as “ella” and the “morning-after” pill Plan B — that act after fertilization and destroy a human embryo.
Religious liberty advocates have criticized what they have described as an inadequate religious exemption in the mandate since it was issued in January.
President Obama announced Feb. 10 an accommodation that he said protects religious organizations by making insurance companies responsible for paying for contraceptives and sterilization, but critics contended his solution was insufficient. Some described it as an “accounting gimmick” that would still require religious organizations to be complicit in paying for employees’ abortion-causing contraceptives through their insurance companies. They have pointed out the president’s accommodation would not protect faith-based insurance plans or individuals who object to paying for such products.
Supporters of the Blunt amendment expressed their disappointment after the Senate vote.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is “outraged by the Senate’s decision to kill” the amendment, said Richard Land, the Southern Baptist entity’s president.
“Make no mistake, the Senate vote was not about contraception but about the right of people of faith to be able to live out the values of their faith free from government coercion,” Land said. “This insensitive response to our pleas to the Senate to protect religious freedom from government coercion cannot go unchallenged.
“If the government can tell its citizens that their First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom and conscience is subject to its dictates, then the First Amendment offers no protection to people of faith,” Land said.
Charmaine Yoest was “absolutely appalled” that the Senate failed to defend Americans’ First Amendment rights, the president of Americans United for Life said at a Capitol Hill news conference after the vote.
Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said in a written statement, “Every vote for religious freedom should be unanimous, but tragically, our fundamental freedoms didn’t seem to matter to enough senators.”
The 51-48 roll call on the Blunt amendment fell nearly along party lines, with the Democrat majority holding its advantage. Three Democrats — Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska — voted against tabling the proposal. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the lone Republican to vote to table it. Snowe announced her retirement only two days before the vote.
Supporters of the Blunt amendment will continue to work for stronger conscience protections in the contraceptive/abortion mandate, they said afterward. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R.-Neb., has 219 co-sponsors for a similar bill he has introduced in the House of Representatives.
The ERLC “will continue to press this battle for freedom to the very end,” Land said. “We call on all people who love liberty to join us in this must-win struggle against government tyranny.”
After the vote, Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, told Baptist Press the House “is absolutely determined to vote on this, and the leadership will make sure that happens. … So we fully expect the Senate to have another opportunity to vote on it. This isn’t done.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Right to Life Committee and Family Research Council were among other organizations to declare their intention to continue to work for sufficient religious freedom protections in the mandate.
Foes of the Blunt amendment — including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Federation of America — applauded the Senate’s action.
The vote is “an important victory for covering contraceptives just like other preventive health care,” said Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president.
Americans United asserted the amendment was too broad and would have harmed religious liberty and public health.
Under the Blunt amendment, no plan would have been considered to have failed the requirements of the health care law if it declined to provide coverage because:
“[P]roviding coverage (or, in the case of a sponsor of a group health plan, paying for coverage) of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan; or
“[S]uch coverage (in the case of individual coverage) is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the purchaser or beneficiary of the coverage.”
Land urged 20 senators, including 11 Democrats, in a Feb. 28 letter to back the Blunt amendment. They were chosen because they had not yet officially joined the list of cosponsors or were considered open to an appeal. Nine of the 20 voted against tabling the amendment. Another, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, was the only senator not to vote.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).