- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Senate Republicans announced new legislation Tuesday to bar the government from forcing business to provide insurance for drugs and services that violate their moral beliefs, tapping into renewed debates over religious liberty, abortion and the persistent legal fight over Obamacare’s birth control mandate.

The bill, authored by Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, would allow private businesses and religious nonprofits to negotiate health plans that do not cover abortion or forms of birth control they object to, without risking heavy fines under the “contraception mandate” that stemmed from the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The bill would also let nurses or health providers seek legal recourse if they’re fired or otherwise discriminated against for declining to participate in abortions.

“It’s a basic principle that Americans should be able to live their faith,” Mr. Lankford said in a brief interview.

Sponsors said they detect increasing discrimination against organizations that try to live their faith in their public lives, and said that could particularly damage religious nonprofits, cutting their ability to provide needed care to “vulnerable populations.”

The effort adds new fuel to the fight over women’s health and faith-based objections to abortion or “morning-after” pills that some equate with the practice.

Already, Democrats charge that Republicans are leading a “war on women,” most recently an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood in the wake of videos that seemingly show its employees negotiating over the sale of fetal body parts.

Under Mr. Lankford’s bill, an employer could buy a health plan that does not include abortion or contraceptives that violate their beliefs, so long as they found a willing insurer. Those negotiations could take place without the government mandating to the parties that they include the objectionable benefits.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it’s already struck the right balance with its policies, which accommodate family-owned corporations and faith-based colleges, charities and universities who object to the mandate.

Under HHS policy, those closely held corporations and religious nonprofits can notify either their insurers or the federal government of their objection to insuring certain contraceptives, and the insurers or plan administrators would then step in and make sure employees can get contraception without the religious charity having to pay for it.

Many nonprofits, though, still object, saying that the notification itself makes them complicit in sin. They’re still trying to fight their case in the courts, but have been rejected by a series of appeals courts.

The Senate GOP legislation would shift the battle back to Capitol Hill.

“This bill is an attempt to achieve legislatively what the nonprofit organizations have not been able to achieve in the courts, namely a wholesale exemption from the contraception requirement in the [health care law],” said Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who fears the bill is overly broad and could result in a patchwork of what is covered from employer to employer.

Holly Lynch, a bioethics expert at Harvard Law School who closely tracks the debate, said the new bill didn’t balance its focus on rights of conscience with a women’s access to services.

“All these senators are doing is focusing on one side of the equation, and that is a serious problem,” she said.

Republican lawmakers have challenged the administration to find a way to pay for the contraceptives if it’s intent on providing them, and some in the GOP have offered legislation to let women buy contraceptives over-the-counter.

Mr. Lankford said community centers in just about every county in America have “some kind of access point” for women who cannot afford contraceptives.

His bill is similar to one his predecessor, Sen. Tom Coburn, filed in the last Congress. So far it has 13 Republican cosponsors — all of them male — although a House companion bill was filed by a female Republican, Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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