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Government, Politics & Issues

High court will allow 'conscience' exemption from contraceptives mandate, predicts Blunt

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 25, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Nearly a year after the Senate rejected the “Blunt amendment,” U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt predicted Friday that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will rule on - and likely reject - the federal mandate requiring employers to provide no-cost coverage for contraceptives or related health care, even if it goes against their religious or moral beliefs.

“Ultimately this is now going to be decided by the courts – and there are plenty of court cases for them to look at,” Blunt, R-Mo., said in an interview after he discussed the “rights of conscience” issue with about 350 people from the St. Louis area who traveled to Washington to take part in the annual “March for Life” rally.

“I think the justices will look at [the law], the Constitution, the First Amendment and determine that the federal government cannot make people do things that violate their faith principles,” Blunt said. He told the crowd that the federal rule reflects an “unbelievably offensive, unbelievably shortsighted, unbelievably narrow view of what faith means to people.”

Last winter, the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated, in a 51-48 vote, Blunt’s amendment to allow employers with religious or moral concerns to opt out of providing services – such as cost-free contraceptives, as mandated by a rule set by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The mandate requires employers who provide health insurance for their workers to include free coverage for all forms of birth control approved by the federal government, as well as pregnancy counseling.

While Blunt and other backers framed the measure in terms of religious liberty, opponents called it a veiled attack on women’s rights that also could be used to weaken other mandates in the Affordable Care Act.

When the Obama administration issued its “interim” rule last August, it exempted from the mandate churches or other institutions that serve people of their own faith and are engaged in religious activities.

Many hospitals, schools and other nonprofit religious institutions that don’t fit that definition do not qualify for an exemption but are temporarily protected under a “safe harbor” provision that will expire this August. Meanwhile, HHS says it is revising the rule.

Dozens of lawsuits already have been filed

At least 43 lawsuits against the mandate have been filed by such non-church entities, but most of those cases have been dismissed on the ground that they were premature. Last month, however, a three-judge D.C. Circuit court panel ruled that the cases filed by Wheaton College in Illinois and Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina should not have been dismissed and ordered that the suits be held “in abeyance” until the government works on its final rule.

“The issue, particularly for religious institutions, doesn’t become subject to court action – the way the court views this – until August, when they actually have to start complying,” Blunt told the Beacon. “So there’s a whole other set of cases that have been filed that the courts will begin to look at whenever we get to that point.”

In his talk, Blunt mentioned the case filed by Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain that is one of more than a dozen for-profit plaintiffs to file lawsuits against the HHS regulations on religious grounds. Several of those firms – including three in Missouri, as well as a religious publisher and a Mennonite cabinet maker – were granted temporary injunctions.

The Missouri firms that have filed cases – objecting to the mandate on various religious grounds – are a St. Louis recycling business, American Pulverizer Co.; St. Louis businessman Frank R. O’Brien, who has 87 employees; and Sharpe Holdings Inc. of Bethel, Mo.

But Hobby Lobby was not granted an injunction. And, in late December, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (who hears emergency appeals for the U.S. 10th Circuit) declined to block the HHS regulations, meaning that Hobby Lobby must comply while it awaits a federal court decision.

“Some of the biggest lawsuits out there,” Blunt said, are “from businesses like Hobby Lobby” which he said don’t object to providing contraceptives but “don’t want to provide any semblance of abortion services. They want to decide what their faith lets them do.”

Blunt said it is possible that Congress will again take up a measure similar to his amendment, even though some would argue that prospects for approval in the Democratic controlled Senate are dim.

“While there are fewer Republicans, there are not fewer people who will vote with us on this issue,” Blunt said. “Other colleagues may want to look at new ways to legislatively approach this, and I’d be glad to look at that.”

Hundreds of thousands march on the Mall

The St. Louisans at the session with Blunt and other lawmakers were among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who gathered Friday on the National Mall to protest the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

A coordinator, Maggie Bick, said St. Louis area marchers filled seven buses that left Thursday and arrived in Washington early Friday. At least 20 other busloads of demonstrators from elsewhere in Missouri were expected at the march, which was held in cold weather and light snow.

Among the speakers in the St. Louis group’s morning session in the Hart Senate Office Building were Blunt and U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth – both of whom agree with Blunt’s position on the HHS mandate.

In an interview, Wagner said she agreed with Blunt that it might be best to wait for the courts to resolve the issue. “This is an issue we’re going to revisit. And I think, in time, we’ll have another opportunity and opening to do so."

Wagner said she hears from many people and firms in her congressional district – mainly in St. Louis County – who object to the HHS mandate. “Whether it’s schools or churches or hospitals or day care centers, many are so affected by this. We’re waiting for the courts, and the right time to move forward.”

Luetkemeyer said a “rights of conscience” bill (similar to Blunt’s amendment) was being re-introduced in the Republican-led U.S. House this year.

“I think the thing to do is go ahead and have the bill ready” for a vote if there is not a resolution of the issue in the courts. Luetkemeyer added: “I’m not going to try to guess what the court’s going to do.”

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