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Op-Ed: No Conflict between Women’s Health and Wellness Act and Freedom of Religion

By Rebekah Diller and Donna Lieberman

Note: this Op-ed was published in Newsday, April 16, 2002

In the face of vehement opposition from Edward Cardinal Egan, the state Assembly and Senate have found a way to promote women’s health while protecting religious freedom in legislation that would prevent health insurers from treating New York women like second-class citizens. A comprehensive women’s health bill — long championed by the state Assembly — would require insurance plans to cover preventive care such as mammograms, osteoporosis screening and contraception.

Yet, the Church had objected to provisions that would end the longstanding practice of excluding birth control from prescription drug coverage and insisted on a wholesale exemption for any group that claims a religious affiliation. The state Senate had agreed with the Church, until this past winter. Then in the face of a special election for what had been state Sen. Roy Goodman’s Manhattan seat, it unexpectedly decided to reach out to New York City women and resolve the perceived conflict between religious freedom and women’s health while closing the huge religious exemption sought by the Church.

As a result, both the Senate and Assembly have now passed narrow exemptions that would allow entities whose purpose is to practice religion to buy special insurance plans without routine birth control coverage. The exemption appropriately avoids imposing a burden on those women who do not share their employers’ religious tenets. Thus, churches and seminaries would be exempt, but affiliated hospitals and social service agencies would not, as they serve and employ diverse populations who may not share the church’s beliefs on contraception. At the same time, employees in religious institutions could purchase contraceptive coverage at group rates on their own. Having bridged this divide, let’s hope the Legislature can settle the rest of their differences and deliver a law that would help New York City women get the health care they need.

Despite the reasonableness of the narrow exemption, Cardinal Egan labeled it the work of “abortion and contraception extremists” who were trying to put the Catholic Church “out of the business of providing health care and social services.” In an unintended way, the Cardinal strengthens the position of the bill’s supporters. He is admitting that the Catholic Church and other organized religions now operate as part of the health care and social services industry. Religiously affiliated hospitals and social service agencies receive millions of dollars in government funding; they employ people of all faiths and no faith; and they serve a wide range of people who may not share the institution’s religious inclinations. And their purpose is to provide health care or social services, not to minister to a person’s faith. When these institutions operate businesses serving the public in the secular world they must abide by the laws that apply to every other employer, religiously affiliated or not.

As for the Cardinal’s claim that these businesses’ freedom of religion is being violated, a California appeals court has already rejected that argument. There, Catholic Charities sued the State of California, claiming that its religious freedom was violated because it was not allowed to buy an employee insurance plan that excluded birth control. The appeals court didn’t bite.

The pending comprehensive women’s health bill will promote public health and end a longstanding form of discrimination. It will not diminish freedom of religion, but rather will force all employers who, to quote the Cardinal, are in the health care and social services “business” to play by the same rules when it comes to providing health insurance for their employees.

This compromise is too important a principle to lose in the looming fight that remains over other parts of the bill. Now that the two houses have largely settled their differences on the religious exemption, the Senate and Assembly still remain at odds over out-of-pocket costs or deductibles for mammographies and cervical cancer screenings. The Assembly has long been a champion of women’s health, looking out for New York City women by pushing this bill forward for four years in the face of opposition from the Senate. Now it’s time for the Legislature to work out any remaining differences and send the Women’s Health and Wellness Act to Governor Pataki for his signature.

Rebekah Diller is the Acting Director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. Donna Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.

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