- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2012

Senators narrowly rebuffed a Republican-led attempt Thursday to undo President Obama’s new contraception mandate as the culture wars and charges of religious freedom violations spilled out onto the chamber floor and both parties vowed to make the vote an issue in November’s elections.

On a 51-48 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment to a transportation-funding bill offered by Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, that would have allowed employers to opt out of covering health care services to which they had moral or religious objections.

The Catholic Church in particular has objected to the mandate, arguing that it violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion by forcing church-affiliated colleges and hospitals to fund something that the church teaches is morally objectionable. But Democrats inside and outside government said the proposal went too far and would go beyond contraception by letting any business or insurer refuse to provide any medical service.

The vote reflected sharp partisan divisions, with every Republican but one voting in favor of the amendment and all but three Democrats opposed.

“The closeness of this vote shows how high the stakes are for women this year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “A Republican-led Senate might pass this bill, a Republican president like Mitt Romney would definitely sign it. If Republicans keep this up, they’re going to drive away independent voters.”

But Republicans in Congress and the presidential field argue that the issue is religious freedom and noted that the amendment does nothing more than restore the status quo, circa 2009.

“Religious institutions and persons will now be compelled by the state to violate their conscience,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “Prior to 2010 and the passage of Obamacare, the First Amendment was intact. Today, it is in tatters.”

The fight began in January after the Obama administration added all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration to the list of mandatory preventive services that insurance plans must cover without charging co-payments or deductibles.

The administration offered churches an exemption to directly paying for contraception coverage and later expanded it to religious schools, hospitals and charities. Many religious leaders called the offers a bookkeeping gimmick. They pointed out that insurance companies will simply pass contraception costs on to them and that many large religious institutions self-insure, thus would be forced to pay anyway.

While the legislation would have allowed employers to opt out, it still would have required their insurance carriers with no objections to cover contraceptives at no cost. It also wouldn’t have struck down dozens of state laws that require insurers to cover contraception.

“Unfortunately, this is only a glimpse of what Americans can expect as a result of President Obama’s government health care takeover — which is why we need to repeal and replace this bill with common-sense bipartisan solutions,” Mr. Blunt said. “This fight is not over.”

Democrats launched an all-out attack on the amendment this week, spending hours blasting it from the Senate floor, warning of refusals to cover blood transfusions or childhood immunizations and saying that insurers could require people to engage in faith healing.

The Obama administration called the amendment too broad, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called it “dangerous and wrong.”

“This proposal isn’t limited to contraception nor is it limited to any preventative service,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. This is dangerous and wrong.”

That criticism was repeated by outside groups. Dr. Robert W. Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Blunt amendment “would have allowed employers to deny their employees services such as vaccinations or blood transfusions, based solely on religious or moral beliefs.”

Pro-life Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia voted for the amendment, but some moderate Republicans expressed concern over the legislation’s sweeping language. Retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine voted against it, while her colleague Susan M. Collins supported it despite strong reservations.

Ms. Collins said she wrote a letter to the administration asking for clarification on whether religious employers who self-insure also would be exempt from the mandate — but the administration was vague in its response. The administration also has formally written the initial regulation into law but has not done the same for its proposed fixes.

“I do this with a lot of conflict, because I think the amendment does have its flaws,” she said. “But when the administration cannot even assure me that self-insured organizations’ religious freedoms are protected, I feel I have no choice.”

As the most vocal opponent against the contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vowed to continue opposing the rule and said it is looking to similar legislation that House Republicans have indicated they will advance.

“We will continue our strong defense of conscience rights through all available legal means,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. “Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person. 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.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, promised eventual action on similar legislation, but didn’t set a timetable Thursday.

That left the issue to roil the political field, with parties and pressure groups on both sides of the aisle vowing to keep the issue at the forefront of public discussion until November.

“We know this is just an attempt in a series of attempts,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. “We heard from Sen. Blunt today that they’re going to continue to move forward, to go after taking away the ability of women to make their own health care choices, particularly when it comes to contraceptives. We’re going to stand up, we’re going to fight back.”

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, vowed that “without question, the politicians who voted in favor of Blunt’s amendment — whether female or male, Republican or Democrat — will pay a price in the voting booth.”

The Republican presidential candidates have seized on the issue to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s commitment to religious liberty. In a CNN presidential debate last month, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the mandate was a continuation of the president’s attack on religion.

“I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance than we’ve seen under Barack Obama,” Mr. Romney said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life candidates, said, “There will be consequences in November for senators in tight races who voted to kill this amendment with the absurd reasoning that they are acting in the best interests of women. Undermining the religious liberty and conscience rights of women can never serve them.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.

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