ACLU Applauds Court Decision Promoting Women's Health and Ending Gender Discrimination in Insurance Coverage

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
December 1, 2003 12:00 am

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ALBANY – The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union today hailed a decision by a New York State Supreme Court judge upholding a New York law requiring insurance companies to include contraceptive coverage in their drug benefit packages.

“We’re gratified that the court understood that this law promotes women’s health and ends gender discrimination in insurance coverage while appropriately protecting some religious institutions,” said Julie Sternberg, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “The court rightly recognized that 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 exempts religious employers, such as churches, mosques, and temples, whose main purpose is to inculcate religious values and who primarily employ and serve people who share its religious beliefs.

“This is a great victory for the women of New York,” said Rebekah Diller, Director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “The court’s decision ensures that employers providing secular services and employing people of many faiths will not be allowed to discriminate against their female workers by forcing them to pay substantial out-of-pocket costs for basic health care.”

In a related case, tomorrow the California Supreme Court will review a similar contraceptive coverage mandate and exemption. In 2001, a California Court of Appeal also held that that law served a compelling public interest by “preserving public health and well-being . . . [and] eliminating gender discrimination,” while not violating religious liberty. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the California case as well.

Ten religiously affiliated organizations challenged New York’s contraceptive requirement — including Catholic Charities of Albany and Ogdensburg as well as other Catholic and Baptist social service organizations throughout the state.

Concluding that the law’s exemption protects the rights and health of large numbers of employees, the New York court noted that “the record shows that Catholic affiliated secular health businesses employ over 50,000 persons, with health insurance coverage provided to as many as 500,000.”

Furthermore, the court held that “[e]xpanding the exemption would certainly reduce the effectiveness of the [law] in meeting its legitimate governmental purposes” of promoting women’s health and ending gender discrimination.

Judge Dan Lamont issued his decision and order upholding New York’s contraceptive coverage mandate on November 25th.

The case is Catholic Charities v. Serio, Case No. 8229-02. Lawyers on the ACLU and NYCLU brief include Sternberg, Diana Kasdan, and Louise Melling of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and Diller and Arthur Eisenberg of the NYCLU.

The ACLU brief is available online at /node/37808

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