The New York Civil Liberties Union today praised a decision by a New York appellate court upholding a state law that requires insurance companies to cover contraceptives.

The law in question, the Women's Health and Wellness Act, requires medical insurance companies to cover women's preventive health care, including mandating that insurance plans that cover prescription drug benefits pay for contraceptives. 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 its religious beliefs.

"This law protects New York women from unfair and discriminatory health insurance practices that deny them basic health care," said Elisabeth Benjamin, director of the NYCLU's Reproductive Rights Project. "This is a carefully crafted statute that recognizes the religious freedom of churches and congregations but declines to exempt corporations that are engaged in secular activities and that provide services to the general public. In upholding it, today's court balances religious freedom and women's right to basic health care."

Finding that the law protects women's health and rights, the court held that the Women's Health and Wellness Act's "object -- to increase women's access to health care -- does not target religious practices." Moreover, the court found that the Act serves an important purpose in that "the record contains evidence that out-of-pocket costs for insured women were 68% higher than such costs for insured men."

"Today's decision affirms the importance of this law in promoting women's health and ending gender discrimination while appropriately protecting religious liberties," said Diana Kasdan, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, which joined the NYCLU in briefing the case. "Institutions like Catholic Charities, which operate in the public world employing and serving people of diverse beliefs, cannot discriminate."

In a related case, in October 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court denied 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 an equally narrow exemption for religious institutions. The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the California case as well. Ten religiously affiliated organizations challenged New York's contraceptive requirement - including Catholic Charities of Albany and Ogdensburg as well as other Catholic and Baptist social service organizations throughout the state.

The case is Catholic Charities v. Serio, Case No. 96621. Lawyers on the ACLU and NYCLU brief include Anna Schissel and Arthur Eisenberg of the NYCLU and Kasdan, Julie Sternberg, and Louise Melling of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.