The U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill that opponents warned would have stripped conscience protections for businesses, drawing a response of cautious relief.
“While the outcome of today’s vote is a relief, it is sobering to think that more than half the members of the U.S. Senate, sworn to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, would vote for a bill whose purpose is to reduce the religious freedom of their fellow Americans,” said the U.S. bishops’ director of government, Jayd Henricks.
The procedural motion to move the bill along fell four votes short of achieving the 60-vote majority needed to continue. Sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the bill would have forced employers with group health plans to provide all “health items” mandated by federal law, including all FDA-approved contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act.
This would counter the Supreme Court’s recent decision that closely-held businesses like Hobby Lobby are protected by federal law from the federal birth control mandate, given their religious objections.
The controversial mandate requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions. It has been the subject of religious freedom lawsuits from more than 300 plaintiffs across the country.
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston – heads of the bishops’ religious freedom and pro-life committees, respectively – had cautioned against the proposed legislation in a letter to all U.S. Senators. They said that it “does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty. Indeed, if it were to pass, it would call that commitment into question.”
The bishops had argued that the bill would go far beyond the Hobby Lobby decision. If health care mandates were expanded in the future to include the abortion pill RU-486 or late-term abortions, employers would be forced to cover those and would have no recourse to conscience protections, they said.