Religious-Exemption Amendment Stalls in Senate

Legislation to ensure religious liberty in HHS mandate did not come to a vote this week.

(photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON (EWTN NEWS)—An amendment providing a religious exemption to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate was prevented from coming to a vote in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 15.

“This is supposed to be a body where we have open discussion, where any member can offer any amendment to any bill at any time,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

He criticized the Senate’s majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., for shutting off the opportunity to introduce new amendments to a bill that was under discussion in the Senate.

“I think the American people want more than that,” he said.

Coats is one of several senators who has spoken out strongly against a controversial insurance mandate announced recently by the Obama administration. Critics of the mandate argue that it forces religious employers to purchase health-insurance plans that violate their consciences.

In recent days, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has attempted to introduce a bipartisan amendment that would have allowed employers to opt out of providing coverage that violates their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

Reid had initially indicated that he would allow the amendment to be introduced on Feb. 15.

However, he then blocked it through a procedure known as “filling the tree,” by which the majority leader fills all possible openings for amendments on a piece of legislation, thereby preventing other senators from offering further amendments.

Reid had criticized the proposed amendment, saying that it was “senseless” and premature because all of the details regarding the mandate are not yet clear.

The Obama administration has been the center of controversy over its new mandate, which would require many religious employers to purchase insurance plans including contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

Faced with outcry from both religious and secular groups, President Barack Obama on Feb. 10 announced an “accommodation” for religious freedom. Instead of having employers purchase the controversial coverage directly, the new policy would require them to buy health-care plans from insurance companies that would be required to offer such coverage free of charge.

Blunt called the new policy an “accounting gimmick,” joining with numerous other critics who argued that the “accommodation” failed to provide adequate protection for religious freedom.

He argued that his amendment was important to safeguard the rights laid out by the American founders in the First Amendment.

By amending a transportation bill that was already up for debate in the Senate, Blunt’s proposal would have given the issue immediate attention in the Senate.

However, other legislative efforts to fight the mandate are already under way.

Among the most prominent of these efforts is the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., which currently has 190 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

In addition, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, which has 29 co-sponsors in the Senate.

All U.S. bishops have called for continued legislative efforts to oppose the mandate and defend the religious liberty of the American people.