WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Senate bill responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has the potential to affect "all existing federal protections of conscience and religious freedom" when it comes to health care mandates, said the chairmen of two U.S. bishops’ committees.
In a July 14 letter to U.S. senators, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, chairman of the Committee on Pro-life Activities, and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, urged the lawmakers to oppose the measure.
Known as the "Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014," or S. 2578, the measure was co-written by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado. Murray introduced the bill July 9. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, scheduled a vote for July 16.
Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori told senators: "Though cast as a response to the Supreme Court’s narrow decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the bill ranges far beyond that decision. … We oppose the bill and urge you to reject it."
The high court, citing the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, ruled June 30 that closely held for-profit companies cannot be forced to abide by the federal Health and Human Service’s mandate that requires nearly all employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs, elective sterilizations and contraceptives to their employees free of charge if the individual or families that own these businesses have religious objections to the mandate.
Supporters hailed it as a victory for religious liberty and opponents called it a setback to women’s health care.
Among other things, S. 2578 would curtail RFRA, "despite claims to the contrary," Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori said. It also would apply to other federal conscience protections; to all present and future coverage mandates, not just contraception; to all employers, not just closely held for-profits; and "to employees, their minor dependents, and other stakeholders, not just employers"; and "further encourages employers to drop coverage."
"In short, the bill does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty," the prelates wrote. "Indeed, if it were to pass, it would call that commitment into question. Nor does it show a genuine commitment to expanded health coverage, as it would pressure many Americans of faith to stop providing or purchasing health coverage altogether."
Murray said in a recent statement that "your health care decisions are not your boss’ business. Since the Supreme Court decided it will not protect women’s access to health care, I will."
The bill she co-wrote with Udall says it is "consistent with congressional intent" in RFRA, but Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori said that the measure’s "operative provisions explicitly forbid application if RFRA whenever the federal government wishes to override the religious freedom rights of Americans regarding health coverage."
What the bill does is keep in place the Obama administration’s exemption from the mandate for houses of worship and some other employers who fit its criteria for exemption. It also keeps intact the accommodation for nonexempt employers. Under that accommodation, organizations self-certify that their religious objections entitle them to an exemption from the mandate and direct a third-party — in most cases the company that manages their health care plan — to provide the objectionable coverage.
But several Catholic and other religious employers who are not exempt and have sued over the mandate argue the exemption as it stands is too narrowly drawn and the accommodation itself involves them in coverage they morally oppose.
Even if the S. 2578 is passed by the Senate, it is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where a companion bill has been introduced by Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Louise Slaughter and Jerry Nadler, who are both from New York.
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