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Update On The Defense Of New York State Contraceptive Equity Law In catholic Charities Et Al. V. Serio Lawsuit

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 and temples, while requiring 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) assisted the New York Attorney General in successfully defending the law when Catholic Charities and nine other religiously affiliated social service groups sued the state in an effort to block it. We helped develop a strategy to counter the lawsuit and filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief 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 employment 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. Catholic Charities appealed the ruling in September 2004 to the New York State Appellate Division, Third Department, and the RRP and RFP again filed an amicus brief in December 2004. In February 2005, the state appeals court heard oral arguments in the case. We await a decision on the appeal.

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