ACLU and NYCLU Ask Court to Protect Women's Right to Contraceptive Coverage

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
August 22, 2003 12:00 am

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ALBANY — A law requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives promotes women’s health and equality without violating religious freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed today in state supreme court.

“The ACLU has a longstanding commitment to protecting religious freedom, reproductive rights, and gender equality. This law strikes an important balance among these rights,” said Julie Sternberg, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

“The law rightly exempts churches, temples, and mosques, but protects people working for religiously affiliated institutions that employ and serve people of many faiths, such as hospitals, charities, and social service organizations,” she noted. “Institutions like Catholic Charities, that operate in the public world and offer secular, not religious services, ought to play by public rules.”

The law in question, the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, requires insurance companies to cover women’s preventive health care, including mandating that insurance plans that cover prescription drug benefits pay for contraceptives. The law was enacted in part to address the failure of an estimated 50 percent of insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives.

The ten religiously affiliated organizations that filed the lawsuit — including Catholic Charities of Albany and Ogdensburg as well as other Catholic and Baptist social service organizations throughout the state — concede that they do not primarily employ or serve people who share their religious beliefs.

“Religiously affiliated or not, employers should not be allowed to endanger women’s health and force women to bear an unfair burden of higher health care costs,” said Rebekah Diller, Director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “Employers that refuse to provide coverage for contraceptives not only unjustly impose their beliefs on their employees, they also discriminate against their female workers by forcing them to pay substantial out-of-pocket costs for basic health care.”

A California Court of Appeal has upheld a similar contraceptive-coverage mandate, holding that the law served a compelling public interest by “preserving public health and well-being . . . [and] eliminating gender discrimination,” while not violating religious liberty. That case is now pending before the California Supreme Court.

Today’s case is Catholic Charities v. Serio, Case No. 8229-02. The brief was filed in the state supreme court in Albany County. Lawyers on the brief include Sternberg, Diana Kasdan, and Louise Melling of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and Diller and Arthur Eisenberg of the NYCLU.

The brief is available online at /node/37808

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