On the Hill: Legislators Introduce Bill to Combat Hobby Lobby Ruling

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which affirmed the ability of for-profit corporations to cite religious objections in refusing to cover certain types of contraception in their medical plans for employees, religious organizations have already started trying to exempt themselves from other important laws and regulations. In fact, a group of religious leaders recently wrote to President Obama asking for an exemption from a forthcoming executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating against employees or potential employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  This is especially embarrassing for the president, as several of these leaders served on various advisory councils at the White House or even worked for him directly.

Nonreligious groups like the American Humanist Association have for years stated that religious exemptions from widely applicable legislation endanger many marginalized communities while alienating nonreligious Americans, and these latest actions seem to confirm our worst fears. It’s for this reason that we’ve supported legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bans discrimination against LGBTQ employees, while opposing language within the act that would grant an exemption from these protections for religiously affiliated businesses.  Thankfully, LGBTQ organizations are now withdrawing their support of such legislation until this problematic exemption is removed, and some members of Congress are now working harder than ever to restore the rights of women, employees, and LGBTQ Americans.

The Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act was introduced last week, first in the Senate by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Mark Udall (D-CO), and later in the House by Representatives Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). According to Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post, these bills would “override the Supreme Court’s decision and state that no federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, permits for-profit employers to refuse to comply with federal health coverage requirements.”

This new legislation, and the shifting attitude of progressive advocacy organizations on religious exemptions, is the silver lining in the black cloud that came with the Court’s recent ruling. While the ruling was obviously detrimental to the concept of religious liberty and the rights of countless Americans, the impact of the ruling could be the catalyst for new thinking on the Hill when it comes to the ability of religiously affiliated businesses (i.e., religious universities and hospitals and for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby) to be exempt from legislation that applies to millions of Americans.

We should not fool ourselves by viewing the Court’s ruling in a positive light, but we can take hope from the near unanimous disgust expressed by legislators and advocacy groups allied to our movement, because they now finally realize the truth in our warnings about the danger of religious exemptions. Hopefully, now can be a time of action that unites those within our movement and our allies in a quest to stop religious liberty from being distorted by the religious right and their cronies in Congress.