Less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its monumental decision in the case known as Hobby Lobby, Congressional Democrats began working on a plan to repeal it through bills in both the U.S. Senate and the House. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) spearheaded the writing of the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act, and Representatives Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) will be working on similar legislation for the House of Representatives.
The two bills would effectively override the controversial decision by the Supreme Court, handed down on June 30. The Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 majority vote to allow the owners of corporations to ban the coverage of certain prescription birth control methods from their corporate insurance plans if those methods conflict with their religious beliefs. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the official dissent against the decision, and spelled out in no uncertain terms the far-reaching implications of the all-male majority vote.
If a Justice on the Supreme Court was as opposed to the decision as Ginsburg, it stands to reason that at least a few members of the Senate and House would also take issue with it. By July 9, some 40 Democrats in the Senate had already expressed their support of Murray and Udall’s bill, though such support from the Republican-controlled House to repeal the Hobby Lobby decision is not as assured.
In January when the Hobby Lobby and corresponding Consetoga Wood Specialties cases were brought to the Supreme Court, Senator Murray and a group of her colleagues filed an amicus brief in support of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) position in the cases. An amicus curae, or amicus brief is a statement by another branch of government which points out its interpretation of a given law that may be called into question by the court. In the case of the Hobby Lobby issue, two laws were called into question: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). A Tenth Circuit Court expanded the RFRA’s scope to include medical care decisions made by for-profit corporations which, as stated in the amicus brief, should be considered secular. This expansion, the brief said, effectively undermined the ACA’s requirement for corporations to provide covered contraceptives. It further urged the Supreme Court to take the same position in hearing the HHS’ appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court’s decision.
Both Senator Murray and Justice Ginsburg have warned that the Hobby Lobby decision will have effects which are broader than the five deciding justices intended. It could allow corporations to challenge other required coverages such as HIV treatments or even life support care. Any healthcare cost that is insurable, detractors argue, could be taken away by an employer who does not agree with it.
The new Senatorial bill was written with input from the federal executive branch as well, and would categorically ban for-profit corporations from excluding required services under the ACA based on religious credo. Murray and Nadler’s argument is that if the Supreme Court decided based on a loose interpretation of the RFRA, there needed to be legislation which corrected any murky language and limited the scope of the law in question.
It would appear that the debate between religious freedom and the right to healthcare is far from over. While Senator Murray has the support of the majority Democrats in the Senate, DeGette and Nadler’s bill may get stuck in the Republican-controlled House. The United States Senate and House of Representatives could potentially override the RFRA, but the Hobby Lobby decision can only be effectively be repealed if their respective bills pass and go to the President to be signed into law.
By Layla Klamt