Senate Democrats unveil legislation to reverse high court's Hobby Lobby ruling

Greg Nash

Senate Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday to effectively reverse the Supreme Court’s decision last week exempting some employers from having to provide insurance coverage for contraception.

The law would bar for-profit corporations from seeking exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that their health plans cover contraception costs. Religious institutions would still be able to opt out.

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“Our bill simply says that your boss cannot get between you and your own healthcare,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told reporters. Murray is the bill’s chief sponsor.

“Last week, we saw the Supreme Court give CEOs and corporations across America the green light to design legally mandated healthcare coverage for their employees. Women across the country are outraged,” she said.

Senate leaders have vowed to fast-track the legislation, but a measure to block the court decision will never pass the Republican-led House.

Democrats are nonetheless eager to call attention to the issue ahead of the midterm elections, hoping women voters will turn out for vulnerable candidates in their party. 

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a co-sponsor who is in the midst of a tough reelection contest, said more than 60,000 women in Alaska who use birth control would be affected by the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision.

“I can tell you [during] my trip I just returned from in Alaska, this was the topic,” he said. “Women are talking about this issue as an impact to their lives, their livelihood and their economic security.”

The Senate bill has 35 Democratic co-sponsors in addition to lead sponsors Murray and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

“Coloradans understand that women should never have to ask their bosses for a permission slip to access common forms of birth control or other critical services,” said Udall, who faces a competitive reelection race that has already touched on the birth control debate. 

No Republican has yet co-sponsored the legislation, although Democrats expressed hope that would change.

The White House indicated last week that the president would respect the court’s ruling, but Democratic senators said they were hopeful he would back their effort.

The administration could pursue regulations to lessen the blow of the court ruling, perhaps by requiring insurers or the government to pay for birth control for women whose employers opt out of the mandate. 

But for now, the White House is putting the onus on Congress to act, effectively inviting Republicans to a legislative fight. 

“The best way to resolve this situation is for Congress to pass a law,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said earlier this week. 

“I am not naive about the difficulty that Congress has in taking steps like this, but ... our first priority is for Congress to take action, and that’s what we would like to see.”

House Democrats including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and Diana DeGette (Colo.) also introduced companion legislation in the lower chamber.

Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed concern that the high court’s ruling could be used to justify employers refusing to cover blood transfusions, HIV treatment and other medical expenses.

“What if the boss doesn’t believe in any medical care? We have a religion that doesn’t believe in any medical care,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “If you work for that person, sorry. No health insurance.

“What this law does is just takes all the ambiguity out of it,” she added.

Christian Scientists have taught their adherents for more than 100 years to avoid doctors and medical treatment in favor of religious healing.

The Senate measure would prevent for-profit corporations from seeking exemptions to any law based on the religious convictions of the employers, noted Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.

The Supreme Court exempted closely held corporations from ObamaCare’s contraception mandate on the basis of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Boxer, who voted for the law more than 20 years ago, said it was intended to protect the religious freedoms of employees, not employers.

“The five Republican-appointed men on the Supreme Court decided in the Hobby Lobby case that the employer, the boss, has total power to deny critical medical care to their employees and they turn the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on its head,” she said. “This is an outrage.”

—This story was updated at 4:22 p.m.