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Catholic Charities et al. v. Serio (Defending New York’s Women’s Health and Wellness Act)

This case addresses whether social services agencies affiliated with churches and other religious institutions are entitled to invoke religiously based objections to a statutory health insurance obligation imposed on all employers. In November 2002, Governor Pataki signed into law the New York Women’s Health and Wellness Act (WHWA), requiring employee health insurance plans to include prescription contraceptives if they cover prescriptions. The Act contains a clause based on model ACLU/NYCLU language that carefully balances religious freedom and reproductive rights. The clause exempts institutions whose primary purpose is to spread a religious message, such as churches, mosques, and synagogues, while requiring lay entities whose primary purpose is secular, such as religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service organizations, to comply with the mandate. Soon after passage of the WHWA, the Reproductive Rights Project (RRP) and the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project (RFP) helped the New York Attorney General successfully defend the law when Catholic Charities and nine other religiously affiliated social service groups sued the state claiming the law violated the U.S. and New York State Constitutions.

The NYCLU and ACLU filed an amicus briefs arguing that entities that employ and serve diverse populations and that provide the public with secular services like health care and social services — often with public funds — must abide by general insurance laws.

The trial court upheld the law as constitutional, noting that a broader exemption would frustrate the law’s goals of promoting women’s health and ending gender discrimination. In September 2004, Catholic Charities appealed to the New York State Appellate Division, Third Department, and the RRP and RFP again filed an amicus brief.

On Jan. 12, 2006, the Third Department issued a decision upholding the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, finding that its “object – to increase women’s access to health care – does not target religious practices.” Catholic Charities appealed the decision to the New York State Court of Appeals. On June 10, 2006, RRP and RFP filed a third amicus brief urging the court to affirm the Appellate Division’s decision upholding the Women’s Health and Wellness Act.

On Oct. 19, 2006, the New York Court of Appeals, in accordance with the Appellate Division’s opinion, upheld the trial court’s ruling. In siding with the defendants, the court found that the law was neutral and satisfied the constitutional standards that protect free exercise of religion. The plaintiffs have recently filed a petition for certiorari in order to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The court denied the petition on Oct. 1, 2007.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York, Index No. 8229-02 (amicus) 

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