The 2017 mandate from the superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services required that employers cover “medically necessary” abortions in their employee health insurance plans. The stated justification was that the state’s insurance law bars limits on or exclusion of coverage based on medical condition or treatment, the New York Times reports.
At minimum, medically necessary abortions would include abortions of pregnancies conceived in rape or incest or those in which the unborn child is malformed. However, the superintendent said that the determination of medical necessity is made by a patient’s health care provider, in consultation with the patient.
“The mandate thus appears to cover abortions of babies afflicted with Down Syndrome and other maladies,” said the petitioners’ brief.
The coalition of petitioners against the New York mandate also includes the Catholic dioceses of Albany and Ogdensburg; their Catholic Charities affiliates, as well as Catholic Charities, Diocese of Brooklyn; and the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. The First Bible Baptist Church of Hilton, New York is also a petitioner.
If the groups do not comply with the mandate, they could face fines of millions of dollars per year. Their petition to the Supreme Court argues that the state is making religious organizations choose between violating their core beliefs, being financially crushed, or closing down services.
Attorneys for the state of New York argued that the mandate’s exception mirrors language used in other contexts. They argued that there is no evidence that health insurance plans that cover abortions cost more money.
“The record thus contains no evidence that by purchasing policies that include the subject coverage, a purchaser funds, even indirectly, medically necessary abortion services,” they argued, according to USA Today.
For his part, Roman Catholic Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany said he was “confident” that the regulation will be “completely overturned as incompatible with our country’s First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty.”
“We are gratified and grateful that the Supreme Court has recognized the serious constitutional concerns over New York State’s heavy-handed abortion mandate on religious employers,” he said.
Some Supreme Court justices appeared more favorable towards giving the case a national platform. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch would have granted the petition for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While religious freedom was for decades an unquestioned American principle, various controversies over health care mandates and LGBT rights claims have made it an area of dispute.
(Story continues below)
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As CNA has previously reported, multiple wealthy donors have poured millions of dollars into a patronage network that aims to limit religious freedom protections that conflict with their vision of LGBT rights and abortion access. Some of these donors, such as the Arcus Foundation, have also backed religious groups that reject Christian teaching on abortion and sexual ethics.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in religious freedom debates and legal challenges about congregations and individuals who refuse to comply with pandemic mitigation measures and vaccine mandates.
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.