Supreme Court refuses appeal from Catholic Charities on birht control coverage requirement

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal from Catholic Charities New York that would have determined whether church-affiliated employers who object to birth control on religious grounds must nonetheless provide contraceptive coverage to their female employees as part of their medical insurance coverage, as required by laws in New York and some two dozen other states.

The birth control case was brought by Catholic Charities in Albany and eight other New York-based Catholic and Baptist organizations. All the organizations, as part of their religious mission, operate educational and social service programs, like schools and nursing homes, that serve the general public.

According to The New York Times, the organizations argued that they should be exempted, on religious freedom grounds, from a New York law, the Women’s Health and Wellness Act. The Legislature passed the law in 2002 after finding that the typical employee health insurance coverage left women with greater uncovered expenses because of the common exclusion of contraceptive coverage. The law provides that if employers choose to cover prescription drugs, the plan must include prescription contraceptives for women.

The law includes an exemption for “religious employers,” precisely defined as a nonprofit organization that seeks to inculcate “religious values;” that “primarily employs” people of its religious faith; and that “serves primarily” those who share that faith. There is no debate that organizations that challenged the law do not qualify for the exemption.

Those organizations argued that the law placed them in a “religiously untenable position” and that the state was improperly seeking to “coerce a church entity to finance private conduct that the church teaches is morally wrong.”

Their complaint was rejected by all three levels of New York state courts: the state Supreme Court, at the trial level; the Appellate Division; and in a unanimous opinion last October, the New York Court of Appeals. That court ruled on the basis of a 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which barred most religion-based exemptions from laws that are neutral, generally applicable and that do not single out religion for special burdens.

In opposing the appeal, Catholic Charities v. Dinallo, No. 06-1550, New York argued that the organizations were not being placed in the position of approving birth control, any more than any other employer that provides health coverage is deemed to express “approval of every medication or treatment used by the employees.” The California Supreme Court has also rejected a challenge by Catholic Charities to that state’s similar law.

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