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Do Corporations Have Religious Rights? 

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray on the latest legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act

click to enlarge Sen. Patty Murray: "I feel very strongly that women ... should be deciding a woman's personal health care."
  • Sen. Patty Murray: "I feel very strongly that women ... should be deciding a woman's personal health care."

Should corporations, like people, have religious rights? That's the question before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week, justices heard oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. In this latest, consolidated challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the evangelical owners of the two businesses contend that the health care law's contraceptive mandate — which requires large, for-profit employers to provide insurance packages covering birth control or pay a fine — violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. A divided verdict is expected in late June.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray was in the courtroom last Tuesday, listening as attorneys representing the Obama administration and the corporations made their cases. Murray led an effort among her Democratic colleagues in the Senate to file an amicus brief supporting the federal government's position against Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. For Murray, this isn't the first time she's had to stand up for women's health care.

"There are people who will try and take advantage of any law, any situation to try and take away a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, and they're using the Affordable Care Act to do that, just like they have with the budget, just as they've used many other pieces of legislation here to do that," she says.

The Inlander spoke with the four-term senator — who recently announced her intent to run for a fifth term in 2016 — and longtime champion of health care reform earlier this week.

INLANDER: You galvanized lawmakers to file an amicus brief siding with the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. Why was it important that you show your support to the Supreme Court?

MURRAY: I feel very strongly that women, not their insurance companies, not their boss, not the CEO of the company and certainly not their shareholders, should be deciding a woman's personal health care.

What's at stake here?

Well, certainly, it would mean that if you're going to go apply for a job and you want your personal health care covered, you better check out what shareholders believe in before you apply for that job. That to me is a huge consequence. But secondarily, someone could argue that other coverage is considered religiously affiliated. Whether it's covering immunizations or it's covering HIV care, it is a very slippery slope to say that someone could say that their religion pre-empts a woman's right to have her own health care coverage on a long list of things.

Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood are arguing that the health care law violates their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Why doesn't the act apply to these businesses?

I was here when that bill was passed; it had nothing to do with giving the rights to an employer to make health care decisions for women, and I can't believe anyone would extend that thought today. To those of us who voted for that at that time, that was never an interpretation that we debated, discussed, offered or considered. So I do not believe that that legislation should be an excuse to not uphold the rights of women in the affordable health care law.

You've called the Affordable Care Act "one of the most significant pieces of legislation for women in our lifetimes." Why's that?

Before the affordable health care law passed, insurance companies legally could charge women more for their health insurance than they charged men. Before the health insurance coverage was put into place, women could be charged or denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Most conditions women have, whether it's pregnancy or other issues related to their personal health care, are considered pre-existing conditions. So the insurance laws as they stood before the affordable health care [law] discriminated against women, and the health care law overturned that, so as a woman, you cannot be denied health care. ♦

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