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Votes fall short to move Senate bill forward in response to Hobby Lobby

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Washington

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday voted to block consideration of a bill aimed at reversing the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and forcing businesses to provide contraceptive coverage for employees even if they object to it on religious grounds.

Known as the "Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014," or S. 2578, the measure was co-written by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado. Murray introduced the bill July 9. The 56-43 vote fell four short of the 60 needed to move ahead on the bill.

"While the outcome of today's vote is a relief, it is sobering to think that more than half the members of the U.S. Senate, sworn to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, would vote for a bill whose purpose is to reduce the religious freedom of their fellow Americans," said Jayd Henricks, director of government relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"We need more respect for religious freedom in our nation, not less," he said in a statement.

In a letter Monday to U.S. senators, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, chairman of the Committee on Pro-life Activities, and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, urged the lawmakers to oppose the measure.

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They said it had the potential to affect "all existing federal protections of conscience and religious freedom" when it comes to health care mandates, telling senators: "Though cast as a response to the Supreme Court's narrow decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the bill ranges far beyond that decision. ... We oppose the bill and urge you to reject it."

On June 30, the Supreme Court, citing the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, ruled that closely held for-profit companies cannot be forced to abide by the federal Health and Human Service's mandate that requires nearly all employers to provide abortion-inducing drugs, elective sterilizations and contraceptives to their employees free of charge if the individual or families that own these businesses have religious objections to the mandate.

Murray and Udall said their bill was "consistent with congressional intent" in RFRA, but O'Malley and Lori said that the measure's "operative provisions explicitly forbid application if RFRA whenever the federal government wishes to override the religious freedom rights of Americans regarding health coverage."

After the vote Wednesday, Udall said the Democratic Party would continue to contest a ruling that says "a boss' beliefs can supersede a woman's rights to health care benefits that she has earned."

S. 2578 would have kept in place the Obama administration's exemption from the HHS mandate for houses of worship and some other employers who fit its criteria for that exemption. It also would have kept intact the accommodation for nonexempt employers.

Under that accommodation, organizations self-certify that their religious objections entitle them to an exemption from the mandate and direct a third-party -- in most cases the company that manages their health care plan -- to provide the objectionable coverage.

But several Catholic and other religious employers who are not exempt and have sued over the mandate argue the exemption is too narrowly drawn and the accommodation itself still involves them in coverage they morally oppose.

In their letter, O'Malley and Lori wrote: "In short, the bill does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty. Indeed, if it were to pass, it would call that commitment into question. Nor does it show a genuine commitment to expanded health coverage, as it would pressure many Americans of faith to stop providing or purchasing health coverage altogether."

A companion bill was introduced in the House July 9 by Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Louise Slaughter and Jerry Nadler, who are both from New York. As of Thursday, no vote on the measure had been scheduled yet.

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