Religious Freedom on Trial

By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
NYS Bishop’s lawsuit claims violation of church-state separation

Government must not interfere with matters of religious faith. However, a New York State law that went into effect on Jan. 1 clearly poses a threat to the separation of church and state, according to Catholic Bishops in New York.For the first time in New York history, the state is attempting to define and limit religion by requiring Catholic schools and other religious institutions to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives. And in another unprecedented move for the state, the bishops of New York, Dec. 30, filed a lawsuit against state officials, challenging the mandate, arguing that it forces religious health, education and human service agencies to violate the teachings of their faith.

“Confronted with no other means of defending our religious freedom against a governmental assault, plaintiffs representing a broad array of Catholic and Protestant entities have taken the necessary step of initiating legal action against the State of New York,” said a statement from the bishops.The provision being fought is included in the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which was approved by the state legislature in June and signed by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki in September. Although the act does offer a narrow four-pronged exemption for religious organizations, this measure is insufficient, believes Dennis Poust, who serves as the director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic bishops in the state. Organizations that have as their primary purpose the inculcation of religious values, those that primarily serve people who share the religious faith of the organization, those that primarily employ people who share the same faith and those with the federal tax code status commonly given to church dioceses and religious orders are exempt from the law, Poust noted, adding that the “law was very clearly drawn to eliminate Catholic hospitals and nursing homes and Catholic charitable agencies and to eliminate schools and universities.”

“All of the ministries of the church, in effect, have been excluded and deemed to be not Catholic by the State of New York,” Poust said. The suit was filed in the State Supreme Court in Albany with several Catholic and Baptist organizations from across the state serving as plaintiffs, including Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School from the Diocese of Syracuse. They want the provision overturned and replaced with one containing a full religious exemption. The lawsuit has come as a “last-ditch effort” to protect the rights of the Catholic Church and religious groups universal. Bishops and church officials have attempted to work with New York politicians since the wellness bill was first introduced to the Assembly over a year ago, trying to reach a compromise that would not infringe on the church’s religious freedom. A number of bishops from New York met with heads of state, and Cardinal Edward Egan personally sought the support of Gov. Pataki on this issue during a meeting at the Executive Mansion last spring.

In June of 2001, in an attempt to assure the availability of necessary health screenings for women, the church even accepted compromise legislation that would have provided health services to all women in New York, but not required the church to pay for contraception coverage. While the Senate passed the bill, the Assembly rejected it out of hand, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “refusing to consider any bill with such a clause.”

“By suing New York, the bishops are doing what they believe is the right thing to do,” said Dennis Manning, who serves as the diocesan director for Catholic Charities. “They have thought on it for a long time. They have sought out attorneys and advice as well as worked with the state to try and find a compromise. Something had to be done to protect people of faith.” Poust, who also serves as spokesman for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, agreed that there is little alternative besides a lawsuit against the state.

“The mandatory contraceptive coverage for employees violates the religious institutions’ constitutional right of freedom of religion. The law has to be fought –– if it stands as is then there is no separation of church and state in New York. The state, by determining what is and what is not Catholic, has interfered with aspects of faith and defined religion as it pleases,” said Poust. Catholics who have been fighting the bill admit that they were particularly surprised when it passed in the state Senate. As Kathleen Gallagher, associate director for pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, explained, throughout history, the Senate has been the more conservative house. “The Republican Senate members who have protected religious freedom for many years now appear to have moved in their thinking, becoming much more moderate,” said Gallagher. She believes that Republican Senate members went along with the bill for political reasons, specifically to win a seat that was up for grabs in a special election in Manhattan. “They [Senate Republicans] decided to act in a way that would capture the women’s vote, agreeing to the bill with the contraception mandate to appear more liberal,” Gallagher stated. “This matter is pure politics. It is very disappointing.” Advocates of the Women’s Health and Wellness Act call the law a breakthrough in women’s wellness. Opponents do not dispute that there are positive elements for women; the law also requires insurance companies to cover screenings for cervical cancer and osteoporosis, as well as annual breast exams for women over 40. Said the bishops in their statement, “We remain deeply supportive of increased access to life-affirming health care for women and have consistently supported these aspects of the bill.”

Cindy Falise, director of the Respect Life Office of the Syracuse Diocese, agrees with the bishops that included in the wellness act are beneficial measures for women. As Catholics, she pointed out it is necessary to look at other elements that the law is tied to.“There are some services included in the wellness act, like bone scans and mammograms, that are wonderful for women,” said Falise. “However, as a church we believe in natural family planning as the best option and that artificial contraception is not advantageous to women. Saying that we have to pay for this service compromises our beliefs as Catholics.”

Pro-choice advocates argue that most women, including Catholic women, use artificial contraception. Without the mandate of prescription coverage, they feel that women’s rights will be violated. However, Falise pointed out that women’s rights groups purposely included contraception coverage with women’s health issues as leverage for their personal agendas.

“This case isn’t about the popularity of artificial contraception or women’s rights. Those who are pro-choice intentionally put the contraception coverage with women’s health concerns in order to get the bill passed,” said Falise. “If the issue of contraception coverage stood alone, people would go crazy, so pro-choice groups combined it with these great things for women. It was definitely a strategic plan.”

While making contraception coverage available to women has caused alarm among pro-life groups, the “enormous concern” for Catholics should be about freedom of religion, according to Falise. She explained, “The huge thing that concerns me about the law is that Catholics have lost their ability to practice religion according to their faith. There is nothing in the mandate that says we can opt out for religious freedom.”

Catholic Charities, which serves more than 1.3 million New Yorkers every year, is one of the organizations which, under the new wellness act, will be forced to provide employees with prescription coverage. With a mission to help all marginalized people regardless of religious affiliation, Catholic Charities does not serve only Catholics –– nor does it employ them only. According to Manning, although Catholic Charities employs women of different faith backgrounds, it should not have to provide them with contraception coverage because, like Catholic hospitals and Catholic schools, it is still deemed “Catholic” under the church.

“Proponents of the wellness act say that we [Catholic Charities] are the perfect example of why the church should be forced to provide contraception coverage based on the fact that we employ a diverse group of women,” Manning said. “However, they neglect that Catholic Charities considers ourselves to be an organization that is part of the church. We are being forced to compromise our beliefs. Is this an overreach? We think so.” Manning, who along with his role at Catholic Charities, serves on the public policy committee for the Bishops of New York State, added that if the bishops win the lawsuit, he does not think it will impact the services Catholic Charities provides.

“Catholic Charities does not violate people’s faith and they know that. I doubt that if the lawsuit prevails, the state and counties will say, ‘We don’t want to work with you,’” Manning said. New York Sate and the Catholic Church have had a long relationship. For over a century, they have partnered to serve the poor and vulnerable –– always with the understanding that the state will not interfere in matters of faith. Gallagher finds it shocking that the state officials would now “cross the line” by forcing the church to violate its teachings.

“The state and Catholic Church have worked together for a long time to deliver beneficial services like those offered through Catholic Charities. New York has put rules on the work we do, such as telling us that we cannot only employ and serve Catholics. We dutifully have obeyed these rules and now, in the middle of the game, they are saying that the rules will be changed,” Gallagher said.

Currently before the California Supreme Court is a lawsuit similar to the one against New York. Catholic Charities of Sacramento is also claiming infringement on its religious liberty because it is not exempt from two U.S. newly enacted state laws that mandate it cover contraceptive drugs and devices. Each of these cases has the ability to determine the scope of religious freedom in America and is why the Catholic Church believes that everyone should take an active interest in this matter. If the lawsuit is not successful, there could be devastating consequences for people of all faiths. “Regardless of people’s personal feelings on the morality of contraception or their religious background they ought to be concerned. The case is a matter of religious freedom, protected by the U.S. Constitution. If the state can force Catholics to violate their own teachings then it can intrude on any religion,” Poust noted. Mary Wright, who serves on the board of director’s of the state’s Right to Life Committee, said that she will rely on her faith to bring her through this difficult time.

“Pro-life groups are all over boasting of their success,” Wright noted. “This law, though, is not a success. It is a very serious turn in policy of the state legislature. Catholics must hope and pray that the court sides with the bishops –– otherwise we will have a very serious situation on our hands.” The Catholic Church is the largest non-public provider of health care and human services in New York State. It operates more than 800 schools serving some 300,000 students; 40 hospitals totaling more than 400,000 inpatient admissions and one million emergency room visits annually; 61 nursing homes with a total of 10,400 beds; and hundreds of social services agencies that serve millions of New Yorkers every year.

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