The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union today said a New York state law requiring insurance companies to include contraceptive coverage in drug benefit packages promotes women's health and is an important step toward ending gender discrimination in insurance coverage. The organizations voiced support for the law as argument got underway today in Albany in a court challenge to the law.

"Courts have made it clear that health insurers may not discriminate against women," said Elisabeth Benjamin, director of the NYCLU's Reproductive Rights Project. "Studies show that insured women pay 68 percent more in out-of-pocket costs than insured men. The Women's Health and Wellness Act puts women on equal footing with men when it comes to health insurance coverage."

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 drugs do not exclude contraceptives from that coverage. The law exempts religious employers, such as churches, mosques, and temples, whose main purpose is to promote a particular religious faith and who primarily employ and serve people who share their religious beliefs.

"This law strikes a careful balance, promoting women's health and ending gender discrimination while appropriately protecting religious freedoms," said Diana Kasdan, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "Religiously affiliated organizations that employ and serve people of diverse beliefs and provide social services -- for example, medical care -- do not have a right to discriminate by refusing to cover basic health services for female employees."

In January 2006, a lower court found that the law protects women's health and rights and upheld the law as constitutional. The NYCLU and the ACLU have filed friend-of-the-court briefs at every step of the challenge, including in the Court of Appeals for the State of New York, which is hearing today's argument.

Ten religiously affiliated organizations brought the challenge against the Women’s Health and Wellness Act. The organizations include Catholic Charities of Albany and Ogdensburg and other Catholic and Baptist social service organizations.

In a related case, in October 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request by Catholic Charities in California to review a state supreme court decision upholding a similar California law, the California Women's Contraceptive Equity Act. Like New York's law, California's requires employers that provide prescription drug benefits to include contraceptive coverage and includes a similarly tailored exemption for religious institutions. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the California case as well.

Today's case is Catholic Charities v. Serio, Case No. 96621. Lawyers on the NYCLU and ACLU brief include Benjamin, Arthur Eisenberg and Galen Sherwin of the NYCLU and Kasdan, and Julie Sternberg of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.