The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union today praised a decision by the highest court in New York upholding a law requiring insurance companies to include contraceptive coverage in drug benefit packages. The groups called the today's unanimous decision a victory for women's health and an important step toward ending gender discrimination in insurance coverage.

"Today's court joins every other court to consider such laws in determining that health insurers may not discriminate against women in their employee benefit programs," 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 addresses that discrepancy by putting women on equal footing with men when it comes to health insurance coverage."

The law at issue, 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.

"Today's decision recognizes that the Women's Health and Wellness Act 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. "The court affirmed today that 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 women employees."

Today's decision by the Court of Appeals for the State of New York concludes that the Women's Health and Wellness Act is a neutral law designed to advance both women's health and the equal treatment of men and women. In addition, the court held that "when a religious organization chooses to hire non-believers it must, at least to some degree, be prepared to accept neutral regulations imposed to protect those employees' legitimate interests in doing what their own beliefs permit."

Ten religiously affiliated organizations brought the challenge against the Women's Health and Wellness Act. The organizations included Catholic Charities of Albany and Ogdensburg and other Catholic and Baptist social service organizations. The NYCLU and the ACLU filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Act at every step of the challenge.

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. 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 ACLU and NYCLU brief include Kasdan, and Julie Sternberg of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and Benjamin, Arthur Eisenberg and Galen Sherwin of the NYCLU.

Click here to read the decision on the Court's web site.