WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Senate’s near-embrace of legislation to curtail the conscience rights of business owners has left religious liberty advocates disturbed at the narrow margin for the cherished freedom.

Senators voted 56-43 Wednesday (July 16) — four votes shy of cloture — to bring to the floor for consideration a bill that would effectively reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in the Hobby Lobby case upholding the religious freedom of for-profit employers. The attempt to invoke cloture, as it is known, fell short of the 60 votes needed to begin debate on the legislation and set up a pathway to its passage.

Religious freedom defenders were stunned that a majority of senators would vote for the proposal, signaling the strength of the threat to religious freedom.

Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he was “shocked that this many votes could be cast in the United States Senate against basic religious liberty for persons in the marketplace.”

“No one should be compelled to violate his or her deepest religious convictions as the cost of doing business,” Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press. “That religious freedom is this controversial shows us the work we have to do in calling our leaders to recognize that religious liberty is a natural right, not a government grant.”

Casey Mattox, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, told BP in a written statement, “The fact that 56 senators voted to invoke cloture on this bill serves as a grim reminder to all Americans that our religious liberty cannot be taken for granted. It’s a wake-up call to us all to remain diligent in our responsibility to defend this fundamental freedom that has made America great and that’s crucial to our success as a nation.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offered a similar warning.

“While the outcome of today’s vote is a relief, it is sobering to think that more than half the members of the U.S. Senate, sworn to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, would vote for a bill whose purpose is to reduce the religious freedom of their fellow Americans,” said Jayd Henricks, the USCCB’s director of government relations, in a written release. “We need more respect for religious freedom in our nation, not less.”

The bill — the Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act, S. 2578 — would bar any federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), from exempting an employer from abiding by the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate or any other rule by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The mandate issued by the HHS is part of the enforcement of the 2010 health care reform law and requires employers to provide for their workers drugs and devices that can potentially cause abortions.

In its June 30 decision, the 5-4 Supreme Court majority relied on RFRA in ruling for the religious liberty rights of Hobby Lobby and other family owned for-profit businesses that conscientiously object to the mandate to pay for abortifacients. RFRA, which was approved nearly unanimously by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, protects the religious freedom of people by extending rights to the corporations they own, the court said. The law requires the government to have a compelling interest and to use narrow means to burden a person’s religious exercise.

All but three of the senators voting for cloture were members of the Democratic caucus. The three Republicans who sided with the Democrats were Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

One other Democrat — Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — actually supports the legislation but voted against cloture because doing so enables him under Senate rules to call for a cloture vote on the measure again. Reid tweeted July 16, “We are going to vote again on this issue before the year is out.”

Seven of the Democrats who voted essentially to undermine RFRA cast votes for the religious liberty law as senators in 1993.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., was the lead sponsor of RFRA in the House of Representatives 21 years ago. After the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and other family owned businesses, Schumer criticized the justices’ opinion. RFRA sought to give individuals the ability “to exercise their religious beliefs without government interference” but “was not intended to extend the same protection to for-profit corporations …,” Schumer said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Sen. Orin Hatch, R.-Utah, denied Schumer’s claim in a Senate floor speech on the eve of the July 16 vote. Hatch, who was lead Republican sponsor of RFRA in the Senate, said the Hobby Lobby case “is exactly the kind of situation [RFRA] was enacted to address, the kind of situation that should require government to justify why and how it wants to interfere with the exercise of religion.”

The Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act “would turn the clock back, requiring that federal laws and regulations ignore rather than respect religious freedom,” Hatch said.

“This is the first time in American history that Congress will consider a bill intended to diminish the protection for the religious liberty of all Americans. It is part of a broader campaign to demonize religious freedom as the enemy, as an obstacle to certain political goals.”

The ERLC’s Moore wrote Reid and other congressional leaders July 10 to ask them to resist efforts to weaken RFRA.

Among organizations endorsing the bill to counter the Hobby Lobby decision were abortion rights organizations such as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro-choice America. Other promoters of the legislation included Americans United for Separation of Church and State and People for the American Way.

The abortion/contraception mandate requires coverage of such drugs as Plan B and other “morning-after” pills that possess a post-fertilization mechanism that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which — in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 — can act even after implantation to end the life of a child.