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Democrats Unveil Legislation To Counter Hobby Lobby Ruling

Democrats Unveil Legislation To Counter Hobby Lobby Ruling

July 9, 2014 — House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday are introducing legislation that aims to override the Supreme Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby by prohibiting employers from denying health coverage to female workers that is guaranteed under federal law, Politico reports (Haberkorn, Politico, 7/8).

In the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees if the corporations' owners have religious objections to contraception (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/30).

During oral arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that the government could resolve the issue by exempting the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), which requires coverage of certain women's preventive services, from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141). The justices' ruling in the case was based on their conclusion that requiring private employers to offer contraceptive coverage violates RFRA.

Legislation Details

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) are introducing the Senate version of the bill, while Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) will propose the House version (Politico, 7/8).

The bills would prohibit employers from discriminating against female employees by denying "coverage of a specific health care item or service" that is guaranteed under federal law (Pear, New York Times, 7/8). The bills specify that no federal law, including RFRA, permits an employer to refuse to comply with the ACA's preventive services requirements.

The bills also would prevent employers from using the Hobby Lobby ruling to deny employees coverage for any other preventive services, such as vaccinations. The measure would retain existing exemptions and accommodations for houses of worship and religiously affiliated not-for-profit organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, Politico reports (Politico, 7/8).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that he aims to move on the proposed legislation "during this work period, sooner rather than later, ... to ensure that women's lives are not determined by virtue of five white men" (New York Times, 7/8).

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said in a statement that the Supreme Court's "decision was a dangerous and outrageous intrusion that undermines women's health, sanctions discrimination, and takes the country backward in profoundly harmful ways," adding, "Congress cannot act quickly enough to right this wrong" (National Partnership release, 7/9).

Bill Prospects, Implications

The Republican-controlled House is not expected to advance the legislation, but Democrats hope that debate over the measures will help motivate voters who support reproductive rights to turn out in this fall's midterm election, The Hill reports (Viebeck, The Hill, 7/8).

According to Reuters, Democrats intend to frame Republican support for the Hobby Lobby decision as evidence of GOP candidates' opposition to birth control (Morgan, Reuters, 7/8).

Justin Barasky, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "This will be a huge motivator for women in the fall and a liability for Republican candidates up and down the map" (The Hill, 7/8).

Meanwhile, Republicans also hope to use the issue to their political advantage. Kirsten Kukowski, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, said, "Polling shows that when we fight back women believe in what we're saying and we're aggressively arming our candidates to do so" (Reuters, 7/8).

Women's Health Protection Act Hearing

In related news, the Senate Judiciary Committee next week plans to hold a hearing on legislation (S 1696, HR 3471) that would prohibit states and local governments from imposing certain restrictions on abortion access, Politico reports (Politico, 7/8).

The Women's Health Protection Act would prevent states from imposing restrictions on abortion providers "that are more burdensome than those restrictions imposed on medically comparable procedures." It would also prohibit states from banning abortion prior to viability or if a doctor believes that continuing the pregnancy would harm a woman's health and would establish guidelines for judges reviewing the constitutionality of states laws (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/14/13).