There's a species of genius in the amendment offered by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt that the Senate will be voting on today. It takes the principle of religious liberty, which all Americans are honor-bound to embrace, and weaponizes it against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), defeat of which the Republican Party has made its central policy objective. What, really, could be cleverer than establishing Obamacare as anti-religion? The arithmetic is: Individual Mandate + Contraception Mandate = GOP Victory.
So long, of course, as the American people don't see the Blunt Amendment as an exercise in denying women contraception coverage. In fact, the amendment says nothing at all about contraception. It merely--merely--asserts 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 PPACA." To be sure, this is only about Obamacare, not (for example) all those state contraception coverage mandates. As Blunt himself says, the amendment "would not impact existing state laws, and it does not address any other law other than President Obama’s flawed health care plan." Which may or may not explain why Mitt Romney was against it before he was for it.
The core GOP talking point, articulated on the floor of the Senate yesterday by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, is that religious liberty is an absolute right. Of course Cornyn, who spent seven years on the Texas Supreme Court, doesn't really believe that. If he did, he'd support the constitutional right of fundamentalist Mormons to engage in polygamous marriages, instead of warning, as he did at Senate hearing in 2004, that a failure to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage would result in polygamy being legalized by some court.
Like every other constitutional right, the free exercise of religion does not mean that anything goes in the name of religion. Once upon a time, we might have been able to have a reasoned public discussion about how best to balance religious liberty against other rights and interests. Not today.
Update: And the Senate votes to table the amendment, 51-48. But don't expect the issue to go away.
Later update: As TPM reports.
Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed by Creative Commons.