WASHINGTON — Taking up advice from the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is pushing a legislative fix to override a court decision that blocks access to free contraceptives for some women.
The fast-track legislation filed Wednesday is Murray’s latest foray into reproductive rights and women’s issues, twin concerns that have long been among her top priorities.
It also marks perhaps the sharpest pushback by Congress against judicial authority since the 2010 Citizen United ruling that greenlighted unlimited independent political spending by corporations and unions.
Murray’s bill, introduced with Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, would ban private corporations from refusing to provide mandated benefits for birth-control pills and devices that violate the companies’ religious beliefs.
It’s a response to the Supreme Court’s June 30 opinion that Hobby Lobby Stores and other closely held for-profit companies can opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage.
Such coverage — without copays and coinsurance — is among the free preventive services that employers must provide under the federal Affordable Care Act, along with immunizations, mammograms and other screenings for certain diseases.
Murray’s bill draws on the outrage that she shared with many women that corporate executives should have no say on family-planning choices for people on their payrolls.
What’s more, Murray said, the ruling could embolden employers to deny coverage for vaccines, HIV treatment and other services that they say violate their values.
Mark Rienzi, the lawyer who won the case for Hobby Lobby, argued it would be relatively easy to find an alternative to forcing companies to pay for contraceptives they oppose. Suggested options include making insurers pick up the cost, or seeking reimbursement from the government.
Murray is the No. 4 leader among Senate Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has marked the bill a high priority and said it would go directly to a floor vote before the chamber’s August recess.
A House version of the bill also was rolled out Wednesday by Reps. Louise Slaughter and Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Diana DeGette of Colorado.
It faces dim prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner has hailed the court ruling as a victory for religious freedom.
In January, Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and 17 other Senate Democrats filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court to argue that secular for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby had no right to impose their owners’ beliefs on employees’ health care.
Women are “tired of being targeted and are looking to Congress to right this wrong by the Supreme Court,” Murray said at a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, where she was flanked by lawmakers and reproductive-rights advocates.
Chief Justice John 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, which says the government shall not “substantially burden” 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 for secular or for-profit employers, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not grounds for such refusal.
Murray said she believes Republican women around the nation can agree with that. Murray is among the most visible liberals in Congress on women’s issues.
She has been outspoken, for instance, on legislation concerning domestic violence, pay parity and funding for women’s health care.
In 2011, Murray criticized the Obama administration’s decision to block girls younger than 16 from obtaining the emergency contraceptive Plan B over the counter.
The following year, she accused the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation of putting politics before women when it withdrew funding for Planned Parenthood.
Hobby Lobby, a family-owned national craft-store chain, objected to coverage for Plan B and ella, brand names for so-called morning-after pills.
The company argued the pills 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 to protect reproductive choices.
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.
- Seattle Times