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High Court Won't Hear Birth Control Case

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MARK SHERMAN | October 1, 2007 10:24 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to enter a church-state dispute over whether some religious organizations can be forced to pay for workers' birth-control health insurance benefits, a growing trend in the states.

The court let stand a New York court ruling upholding a state law that forces religious-based social service agencies to subsidize contraceptives as part of prescription drug coverage they offer employees.

New York is one of 23 states that require employers that offer prescription benefits to employees to cover birth control pills as well, the groups say. The state enacted the Women's Health and Wellness Act in 2002 to require health plans to cover contraception and other services aimed at women, including mammography, cervical cancer screenings and bone density exams.

Catholic Charities and other religious groups argued New York's law violates their First Amendment right to practice their religion because it forces them to violate religious teachings that regard contraception as sinful.

"If the state can compel church entities to subsidize contraceptives in violation of their religious beliefs, it can compel them to subsidize abortions as well," the groups said in urging the court to take their case. "And if it can compel church entities to subsidize abortions, it can require hospitals owned by churches to provide them."

Other Catholic and Baptist organizations are part of the lawsuit. Seventh-Day Adventist and Orthodox Jewish groups signed onto a brief filed in support of Catholic Charities.

Three years ago the court rejected a challenge to a similar law in California.

"A church ought to be able to run its affairs and organize relationships with its employees in a way that's consistent with moral values and teachings," said Kevin Baine, a partner at the Williams and Connolly law firm who represents the religious organizations.

The New York law contains an exemption for churches, seminaries and other institutions with a mainly religious mission that primarily serve followers of that religion. Catholic Charities and the other groups sought the exemption, but they hire and serve people of different faiths.

New York's highest court ruled last year that the groups had to comply with the law. The 6-0 decision by the state Court of Appeals hinged on the determination that the groups are essentially social service agencies, not churches.

According to Planned Parenthood, the other states with similar laws are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

The case is Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany v. Dinallo, 06-1550.