N.Y. Court: Religious Groups’ Medical Plans Must Cover Contraceptives

October 24, 2006

Catholic and other religious social service groups must provide contraceptive coverage through their workplace-sponsored medical insurance programs even if they consider contraception a sin, according to a ruling by New York state’s highest court.

The 6-0 decision by the state Court of Appeals hinged on defining Catholic Charities and the other nine religious groups suing the state to be social service agencies, rather than only operating as churches.

The organizations “believe contraception to be sinful,” the decision states. “We must weigh against (their) interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith the state’s substantial interest in fostering equality between the sexes, and in providing women with better health care.”

The New York Catholic Conference is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We think this has never really been about contraception, we think it was to target the church and open the door for coverage of abortion,” said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the Catholic conference.

“Today’s ruling shows that no one is above the law, including the Catholic bishops,” said Kelli Conlin, president of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, part of the national abortion rights organization. “No employer should be able to force their beliefs upon their employees, especially given that 97 percent of Catholics report using birth control.”

Family Planning Advocates of New York State called the decision a win over discrimination for women. JoAnn Smith, the group’s president, said women have paid as much as 68 percent more out of pocket for health care than men. She said her group would consider fighting any appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is the sixth court that ruled in this — three in California and three in New York — and all came to the same conclusion,” Smith said.

The court said the fact that the organizations hire employees outside their faith is a critical factor and they deserve the rights sought under the law.

Poust said, “I think it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholicism, which teaches that to be saved, Catholics must perform works of mercy. Faith alone is not enough … and the way the church performs its works of mercy is through its Catholic Charities, its schools and its hospitals — all of which the state has now held is secular.”

At issue is the 2002 Women’s Health Wellness Act, a measure that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for mammograms, cervical cytology, bone density screening and other preventive services for women including prescription contraceptives. Catholic Charities and the other groups sued the state to be exempt from the requirement, but narrowly lost in a lower court in 2003 and last year at the appellate level.

The New York law does exempt churches, seminaries and other institutions with a mainly religious mission that primarily serve followers of that religion.

As Catholic Charities considers an appeal, it will continue to cover contraceptives for employees under protest. If the decision stands, the organization could consider dropping prescription drug coverage for employees — a highly unlikely change — or consider the costly route of self insurance, Poust said.


On the Net:

Court http://www.courts.state.ny.us

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