By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times
WASHINGTON — Taking up advice from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., congressional Democrats Wednesday introduced legislation to get around the court’s decision last month to exempt private corporations from having to provide coverage for birth-control pills and devices that violate the companies’ religious beliefs.
The companion bills — the Senate version co-authored by Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado — are perhaps the sharpest pushback against judicial authority since the 2010 Citizen United ruling that green-lighted unlimited independent campaign spending by corporations and unions.
The Murray-Udall bill would address the court’s June 30 opinion that Hobby Lobby Stores and other closely-held for-profit companies can opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. Birth control coverage without co-pays is among mandatory preventive services that employers must provide under the federal Affordable Care Act.
A companion bill in the House is being introduced by Representatives Louise Slaughter and Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Diana DeGette of Colorado.
Democrats said they are channeling widespread anger and fear that the ruling will embolden employers to deny coverage for vaccines, HIV treatment and other services that violate their values.
In January, Murray, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state and 17 other Senate Democrats filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to argue that secular for-profit companies had no right to impose their owners’ religious beliefs on people on their payrolls.
“Women across the country are outraged” that CEOs can interfere with health-care decisions, Murray said at a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, where she was flanked by lawmakers and reproductive-rights advocates.
Women are “tired of being targeted and are looking to Congress to right this wrong by the Supreme Court,” Murray said.
Justice Roberts himself suggested a legislative remedy during oral arguments in March. Roberts pushed back against Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s argument that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act that prohibited the government from “substantially burden(ing) a person’s exercise of religion” was never intended to apply to for-profit corporations.
“Well, if Congress feels as strongly about this as you suggest, they can always pass an exemption,” Roberts said.
Murray said the bill had support from about 40 senators, all Democrats. The legislation would ban employers from refusing coverage for any benefits guaranteed under the Affordable Care Act. It also specifies that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not grounds for such refusal.
Hobby Lobby, a family-owned national craft-store chain, objected to coverage for emergency contraceptives known as morning-after pills. The company argued the pills, sold under brand names Plan B and ella, worked by aborting fertilized eggs. However, researchers believe the pills prevent conception by keeping the egg and sperm from meeting.
A second, Christian family-owned company, Conestoga Wood Specialties, made the same challenge.
In a 5-4 opinion, the justices said requiring such coverage created substantial burden on the companies’ religious liberty.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said her group was mobilizing women across the country. Richards said women use contraceptives for medical reasons as well as to guard against pregnancies, and denying them coverage was gender discrimination.
Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the Obama administration allowed “reasonable” exemptions under the health-care law for churches and religious nonprofits. But private corporations, she said, deserve no such accommodation, and their owners’ personal beliefs should not impinge on their workers’ rights.
AFP Photo/Jewel Samad