Bellows and Collins clash on vote to overturn Hobby Lobby ruling

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and her 2014 Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows. Reuters photo (Collins) by Joshua Roberts. BDN photo (Bellows) by Troy Bennett.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and her 2014 Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows. Reuters photo (Collins) by Joshua Roberts. BDN photo (Bellows) by Troy Bennett.

If you needed any evidence of how strange politics can turn during an election, look no further.

Today, the U.S. Senate held a vote on a bill by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. The bill would have overturned the controversial Hobby Lobby decision, but it failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to advance.

Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins voted in favor of the bill. Her Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, also supported the bill, but had harsh words for Collins anyway despite being on the same side in this particular debate.

Bellows’ characterized Collins’ support for Murray’s bill as an “election year flip-flop.” She pointed out that Collins had voted for the Blunt Amendment in 2012, which would have allowed any employer to opt out of covering birth control for its workers through employer-sponsored health insurance if doing so violated their religious beliefs. The Blunt Amendment would have gone even further than the Hobby Lobby ruling, which only extends religious rights to “closely held corporations.”

Back in 2012, Collins said she was supporting the Blunt Amendment because it was the only option on the table that protected churches and faith-based organizations from having to violate their beliefs. Today, there are exceptions in the Affordable Care Act for such organizations but, back then, there weren’t.

That reasoning doesn’t do much for Bellows, because the Blunt Amendment — which failed — would have allowed any employer to claim a religious exemption from providing contraceptive services not just churches and faith-based organizations.

“I would never vote for anything that restricts women’s rights, which the Blunt Amendment did,” Bellows said in an interview Wednesday. “Republican attacks on women’s rights should be a rallying cry for women across the country this election.”

The disagreement is a bit deeper, though, than it first appears: Collins is a supporter, generally, of exemptions for faith-based non-profits such as religious hospitals and charity organizations. Some religious exemptions for such organizations are already enshrined in law.

Others could be on their way: The Employee Non-Discrimination Act, a bill pending in Congress and supported by Collins, would prohibit discrimination against LGBT workers in the workplace. The bill, however, wouldn’t apply to religious institutions. In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, many former supporters of ENDA have jumped ship, saying the religious exemption is no longer palatable.

Bellows has said such exemptions can effectively violate the civil rights of women and LGBT people whose views don’t mesh with the views of those organizations. She says she’d support a version of ENDA, for example, with no religious exemption whatsoever — a blanket position that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is always illegal.

Murray’s bill to overturn the Hobby Lobby ruling contained a religious exemption, but Bellows said her support for the bill was consistent with her values:  “Today’s bill would cleanly reverse the Supreme Court decision. That is so critical to passing, that I support it whole-heartedly. We cannot wait. … The next step in advocacy is absolutely expanding access to contraception [for employees of religious nonprofits] but that’s a different question that wasn’t raised by the Supreme Court.”

For her part, Collins will continue to defend the right of religious groups to be exempt from legal mandates that would force them to violate their beliefs, said her spokesman, Kevin Kelley.

“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom, a key principle upon which our nation was founded.  If we undermine that constitutional protection, we imperil a fundamental right that we enjoy as Americans,” he said in a written statement.

“Sen. Collins believes that churches and faith-based organizations should not be presented with the impossible choice between violating their own religious beliefs or violating federal regulations. She also believes that policy goals can be achieved without imposing unnecessary burdens on religious liberty, and it is fair and wise for us to do so. Indeed, court cases and our law require this prudent accommodation of First Amendment rights.”

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.