The New York State Catholic Conference may petition the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a decision by the state’s highest court to uphold a state mandate that religious employers provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage as part of prescription-drug coverage in their employee health plans. The ruling was issued Oct. 19 by the New York Court of Appeals.
“We are very disappointed with the Court of Appeals decision and firmly believe that it is in error,” said a statement from Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the conference, which represents the state’s bishops on public-policy matters. “Any religious organization must have the right in American society to uphold its own teachings, even if those teachings are unpopular or counter-cultural. Plaintiffs will give every consideration to asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review it and reverse it.”
The 2002 law, known as the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, contains an exemption for religious organizations, as long as their purpose is to spread religious values and so long as they primarily employ and serve people who share their religious beliefs. The exemption does not cover such educational, health and human-service ministries as Catholic Charities, Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals, which both employ and serve non-Catholics.
The state Catholic conference and several Protestant groups joined in challenging the mandate, and in January the Third Department of the state Supreme Court Appellate Division upheld a lower-court ruling that the law was constitutional.
The Oct. 19 Court of Appeals 6-0 ruling was written by Associate Judge Robert S. Smith, with newly appointed Appellate Court Judge Eugene Pigott, a Rochester native, declining to take part in the decision.
The court said that the law had been intended to expand health-insurance coverage for women’s services such as mammography, cervical cytology and bone-density screenings. The decision also noted said that the New York District of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advised the state Legislature that better access to contraception would mean fewer abortions and unplanned pregnancies.
The ruling would have a chilling effect on religious freedom, Barnes noted, saying that — through this law — the state has unconstitutionally defined religion in a way that effectively declares Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable agencies to be secular.
“It should come as no surprise that legislation already has been introduced that would force Catholic entities to pay for employees’ abortions,” he said. “Could the Court of Appeals reject such a new law in light of today’s decision?”
The Court of Appeals said the law does not force religious organizations to buy contraceptive coverage for their employees in violation of their religious beliefs, since such organizations can opt not to provide prescription-drug coverage for their employees.
Yet Barnes said Catholic social teaching demands that church ministries pay just wages and benefits to employees. Dennis Poust, the Catholic conference’s director of communications, added that losing their employer-paid prescription-drug coverage could create a financial burden for some workers with complex medical problems.
He said the state’s bishops could explore the possibility of self-insurance, which isn’t bound by the same rules as commercial-insurance plans. But he noted that self-insurance can be risky for small organizations, because high medical bills for a few very sick employees can quickly exhaust an insurance pool.
A California law, which imposed a similarly narrow religious exemption upon which the New York law was modeled, was appealed to the Supreme Court two years ago, Poust said, but the court declined to hear the case. This does not mean the New York case would not be heard, he noted, since two justices have been replaced on the court since the California case was denied.
He added that attorneys for the Catholic conference are weighing whether federal issues are at stake in the state decision.