Senate to Vote Thursday on 'Respect for Rights of Conscience'

By | March 1, 2012 | 6:08 AM EST

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) (AP Photo)

( - The U.S. Senate plans to vote Thursday on a Republican-sponsored amendment that would restore "conscience rights" to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The amendment -- sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and attached to an unrelated transportation bill -- would remove "inflexible mandates" that prevent individuals from exercising their rights of conscience and that impede their ability to freely participate in the health care marketplace.

The intent of the legislation is "to ensure that health care stakeholders retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions, without fear of being penalized or discriminated against under (Obamacare)."

"The word 'contraception' is not in (the legislation) because it's not about a specific procedure," Blunt said. "It's about a faith principle that the First Amendment guarantees."

But Democrats once again are framing the argument as one about birth control. "Make no mistake: This is an attack on women's health," the Democratic National Committee said in a message to supporters.

"When the other side tries so hard to claim this debate isn't contraception, that's how you know this debate is precisely about contraception," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Health and Human Services Secretary said the proposal would allow any employer to exclude coverage of any health service "they say they object to."

"The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.  We encourage the Senate to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women’s health," Sebelius said in a statement.

Blunt's bill notes that before Democrats passed their health care law, the federal government had never tried to impose specific coverage or care requirements on insurers or consumers.

But the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act creates a new nationwide requirement for health plans to cover "essential health benefits" and "preventive services" (including contraception, sterilization and abortofacients). It's up to the Department of Health and Human Services to determine what services must be covered.

While the law extends conscience protection to churches and some other religious groups, it does not exempt religiously-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, from providing their employees with services that violate church teachings.

In the language of Blunt's legislation, Obamacare "does not allow purchasers, plan sponsors, and other stakeholders with religious or moral objections to specific items or services to decline providing or obtaining coverage of such items or services, or allow health care providers with such objections to decline to provide them."

Blunt says it's "unequivocally false" to say that his amendment would allow anyone to deny coverage of any health care service for any reason:  The amendment "simply restores conscience protections that existed before President Obama’s flawed health care law – the same protections that have existed for more than 220 years since the First Amendment was ratified," Blunt says on his Web site.

If an employer has a religious or moral objection to a type of coverage, Senator Blunt’s amendment affords them the same rights that they had before Obamacare to negotiate a plan with a health insurance company that meets their needs.

The amendment also says employers and individuals who believe their conscience rights have been violated by government mandates may take their case to court. "Federal courts are well equipped to identify spurious claims," Blunt's Web site says.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is a leading critic of the Obama administration's infringement of religious freedom.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Bishop William E. Lori said the controversy is not about whether contraception may be prohibited or supported by the government.

"Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs."

“It is precisely that element of government coercion—of government’s conscripting unwilling religious people and groups in its effort to increase the usage of contraception nationwide—that makes this a religious freedom dispute," Lori said. "This is not a matter of ‘repackaging’ or ‘framing’ the dispute as one of religious freedom, as some have suggested. It is a matter of acknowledging the basic fact that government is forcing religious people and groups to do something in violation of their consciences.

"And yet, listening to the public discourse about the mandate, it is easy to get the impression that the Catholic bishops were somehow on the cusp of prohibiting the use of contraceptives nationwide. Only in our new world-turned-upside-down does freedom require the denial of freedom; only in the post-mandate world is access to contraceptives somehow prohibited unless government begins forcing religious people and groups to fund and facilitate it," Lori testified.

(The Associated Press contributed some of the information used in this report.)