An amendment tacked onto an unrelated transportation bill that would allow any employer, not just those affiliated with a religious organization, to not offer contraceptive health coverage to employees failed yesterday in the U.S. Senate by a vote of 51-48.
The votes dashed the latest hopes of conservatives and religious organizations as they continue to press the Obama administration to back off its recent mandate that all employers, with the exception of religious institutions, must offer health plans that provide free preventive health services to women including contraceptive services.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (F-FL), didn't focus solely on exempting any kind of faith-based employer from providing contraceptive service, instead opting to allow any employer to decline to offer any health benefit if they had "moral or religious" objections.
That proved too broad for Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who was the only Republican to vote against the amendment, saying on MSNBC that the amendment was too broad to support.
Sen. Blunt contends that the amendment did not open the door to allowing employers to essentially pick and choose which procedure they would offer and which they wouldn't in addition to contraceptive benefits.
"This bill would just simply say that those healthcare providers don't have to follow that mandate if it violates their faith principles," according to a press release issued last month by Blunt. "This is about the First Amendment. It's about religious beliefs. It's not about any one issue."
Senate Democrats didn't buy that argument.
"It is terrible policy," Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) told CBS News. "It will allow any employer in America to cut off any preventive care for any religious or moral reason. It would simply give every boss in America the right to make the healthcare decisions for their workers and their families."
As a polarizing issue, the debate stems on two core beliefs: one that contends the mandate is a violation of religious freedom guaranteed under the Constitution and another that contends this is an issue of women's rights.
"Voters across America watched today as a majority of the United States Senate voted to gut the First Amendment of our Constitution by failing to protect the religious freedom of all Americans," said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, in a prepared statement after the vote. "The President and his Secretary of Health and Human Services have divided the country with an unprecedented assault on our first freedom - the right to believe - by forcing every American to pay for medicines and procedures that millions of Americans find morally objectionable."
The National Organization for Women (NOW) hailed the Senate vote.
"Voters know that individual women, unlike corporations, have consciences and religious convictions and that the Blunt Amendment is a direct attack on their right to birth control and other forms of reproductive healthcare," said Terry O'Neil, president of NOW.
But there is also recognition that the issue is far from settled. In a press release issued yesterday, O'Neill noted that there are two similar bills being readied in the Senate and that the organization is still urging its base to contact Senators to urge them to defeat these bills as well.