Bill restricting religious freedom defeated in Senate

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A bill that would have placed substantial restrictions on business owners' religious freedom has been defeated in a party-line vote in the US Senate. The Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interferecne Act sought to overturn the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hobby Lobby VS Burwell, where the court found that employers are not obliged to pay for health insurance for their employees that covers abortifacients.

The bill failed to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, though a procedural move by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow it to be voted on again.

The bill's defeat follows strong criticism from religious leaders, including the US Catholic Bishops. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, President of the Episcopal Commission for the defence of life and Archbishop Lori, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the bill would do more than overturn the Hobby Lobby decision.

The two religious leaders wrote a letter urging senators to vote against the bill. The letter said that the bill, “though cast as a response to the Supreme Court’s narrow decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the bill ranges far beyond that decision, potentially attacking all existing federal protections of conscience and religious freedom regarding health coverage mandates”.

The two bishops identified several areas of concern with the bill, including its unprecedented curtailment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993; its potential for overriding other federal conscience protections, including the Hyde-Weldon amendment on abortion; its application to coverage mandates beyond the HHS contraceptive mandate; its application to employers beyond for-profit businesses; and its denial of religious freedom for employees and their minor dependents, not just employers.

“In short, the bill does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty. 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. We oppose the bill and urge you to reject it,” they wrote.

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