Empire State Appellate Panel Backs Contraceptives Coverage Law

January 13, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A split New York state appellate court has turned aside objections from religious-affiliated employers and upheld a controversial law requiring employers to provide prescription insurance coverage to their workers for contraceptives.

Ruling in a challenge to the state’s Women’s Health and Wellness Act by Catholic and Baptist groups, the New York State Appellate Division, 3rd Department rejected arguments that the statute impeded their state and federal constitutional rights by only exempting religious employers focusing on ecclesiastical rather than secular activities, the New York Law Journal reported.

Under the 2002 law, a religious employer whose main purpose is to promote its theological values is exempted, while one that runs hospitals or offers social services as part of its ministry cannot qualify for the exemption. The law, which was drafted as a women’s health and gender equity measure, exempts qualified religious employers, but only to the extent that the inculcation of religious values is their main mission and they primarily employ and serve members of the same faith.

The court issued the decision in Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany v. Serio, 96621 on a 3-2 vote. The latest ruling affirms a decision by Albany Supreme Court Justice Dan Lamont.

The majority noted that the plaintiffs employ many people who do not share their faith, and suggested that permitting the religious groups to bypass the contraception provision would subordinate the beliefs of the employees to that of the employer. They also rejected the argument that forcing the church-affiliated groups to pay for contraceptive insurance would create a perception that those groups were endorsing contraception.

In a statement, the New York State Catholic Conference made clear that it would appeal.

“[O]ur religious beliefs prevent us from paying for something we teach is sinful,” Richard Barnes, executive director of the conference, said in a statement, according to the Law Journal. “We believe that advocates of this legislation have their sights set on mandating coverage for abortion, in an attempt to destroy the Church’s network of social services, hospitals, nursing homes and schools.”

JoAnn Smith, president and chief executive officer of Family Planning Advocates, said the case has nothing to do with abortion, noting that contraception helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions.

“This bill was about contraceptive coverage from the beginning, middle and end,” Smith told the Law Journal. “It was about making sure that the discrimination women faced in receiving basic health care was ended in New York state The fact that the court recognized as important the state interest in gender equality and access to health care is tremendously important and I was thrilled to see that.”

The latest appellate ruling is here .

Acting New Jersey Governor Richard Codey recently signed into law a measure that Garden State health insurance providers covering outpatient prescription drugs now have to likewise cover physician-prescribed contraceptives for women (See New Jersey Adds Contraceptives Coverage Mandate ).