By Michelle Bauman
An amendment to ensure that a religious exemption would be included in the federal health care overhaul was killed by a narrow margin in the U.S. Senate on March 1.
Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who introduced the amendment, said that he was “truly disappointed” with the vote and vowed that he would continue working to defend religious freedom.
“This fight is not over,” he stated.
“The need to defend citizens’ rights of conscience is the most critical issue before our country right now,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who heads the U.S. Catholic bishops’ religious liberty committee.
He vowed to continue working to “build on this base of support” and defend conscience rights “through all available legal means.”
The Senate voted 51-48 to “table” the proposed amendment, effectively killing it by preventing an up-or-down vote on the amendment itself. The move was made possible by the vote of multiple Catholic Democrats to defeat the legislation.
The discussion and vote came only after overcoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) procedural attempt to block the Blunt amendment, which he called “senseless.”
The proposed amendment would have allowed health care providers to opt out of providing coverage that violates their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Blunt argued that his amendment was necessary to protect the First Amendment guarantees of religion freedom against the demands of the Obama administration’s contraception and sterilization mandate.
The federal mandate requires employers to purchase insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs, even if doing so violates their conscience.
Both religious and secular groups voiced strong objections to the mandate. In response, President Barack Obama announced a Feb. 10 “accommodation” for religious freedom. Instead of having employers directly purchase the controversial coverage, the promised revision would require them to buy health care plans from insurance companies that would be required to offer the coverage for free.
Critics have argued that the proposed revised rule is insufficient to protect religious freedom, noting that insurance companies will likely pass the costs of the “free” coverage on to employers in their premiums.
One day before the March 1 vote, Blunt noted that his amendment would not block “the mandate itself” but merely ensure that religious providers have an exemption from it.
He also observed that the amendment did not directly mention “contraception” or any other procedure. He explained that it was “not about a specific procedure” but about “a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees.”
By amending a transportation bill that was already up for debate in the Senate, Blunt’s legislation would have addressed concerns about the mandate immediately.
However, other legislative efforts to fight the mandate are still being considered, including the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which was introduced by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and has received the support of 219 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.
The U.S. bishops have joined numerous other groups and individuals in opposing the contraception mandate. They have called for legislation to repeal the mandate and defend religious freedom for Americans.
“Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person,” said Bishop Lori. “We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights.”