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ALBANY, N.Y.--Social service organizations operated by the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups must provide birth control coverage to their employees, even if they consider contraception a sin, New York's highest court has ruled.
Thursday's 6-0 decision by New York's Court of Appeals resolves a lawsuit filed by Catholic Charities and nine other church-affiliated groups that claimed to be exempt from a 2002 state law that expanded health care coverage for women to include contraception, among other things, starting Jan. 1, 2003.
Plaintiffs included Catholic Charities of the Dioceses of Albany and Ogdensburg, Temple Baptist Church, First Bible Baptist Church, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, Our Lady of Consolation Geriatric Care Center, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, Bishop Ludden High School and Delta Development of Western New York. The plaintiffs were weighing whether to file an appeal.
The Supreme Court of Albany County dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint, filed shortly after the Women's Health and Wellness Act of 2002 was enacted, and declared the legislation valid. The Appellate Division later upheld the ruling, which New York's highest court affirmed on Thursday.
In their lawsuit, the church-affiliated organizations claimed they should not have to comply with the WHWA because it provided an exemption for churches, seminaries and other religious institutions. However, the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff organizations did not qualify as religious employers under the statute because, unlike churches, their objective is not to promote a particular faith, but to provide social and educational services, oftentimes to people of numerous other faiths.
"Plaintiffs believe contraception to be sinful and assert that the challenged provisions of the WHWA compel them to violate their religious tenets by financing conduct that they condemn," the court decision observed.
However, "religious beliefs were not the 'target' of the WHWA, and it was plainly not that law's 'object' to interfere with plaintiffs' or anyone's exercise of religion," the court ruling stated. "Its object was to make broader health insurance coverage available to women and, by that means, both to improve women's health and to eliminate disparities between men and women in the cost of health care."In deciding whether to enact the WHWA, the New York Legislature took into consideration a study showing that women paid 68% more than men for health care and that the cost of reproductive health services was a primary reason for the discrepancy, the court pointed out.