All but three Senate Democrats united this week to defeat legislation authored by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) that would address the lack of religious freedom protections for many faith-based organizations under the 2010 health care overhaul. However, it is more likely that this is an opening act rather than a finale on an issue that has become strangely partisan; respecting First Amendment rights to religious liberty.
This storm was ignited in January when the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department announced its refusal to accept an adequate religious exemption to the universal contraceptive coverage requirement of The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed by critics as "Obamacare.” While the Administration has indicated a supplemental rule is in the beginning stages of consideration, the current offending HHS regulation has been finalized and once in effect, agency officials could fine non-compliant religious employers approximately $2,000 per employee.
Senator Blunt voiced disappointment and determination following the vote: “For the first time in our history, the Obama Administration’s health care mandate is an egregious violation of our First Amendment rights…. This fight is not over. I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress to protect the rights that make our nation great.”
Simultaneous to the Senate vote, a hearing was occurring before the House Health Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA), during which HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced numerous questions about her decision not to respect the religious liberty rights of many faith-based organizations. In addition, earlier in the week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a passion-filled hearing about whether or not the Executive Branch had stepped out of bounds on this subject.
Off the Hill, grassroots energy appears to be growing. Notably, religious freedom rallies are being planned nationwide on Friday, March 23 outside federal buildings, Congressional offices, and other public spaces. Preparations are underway in over 60 cities.
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations