New York News

Diocese of Albany, Religious Groups Suing NY State for Requiring Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Plans

Members of the Sisters of St. Mary, Greenwich, New York, are pictured in this photo. The Anglican sisters joined the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm in Albany, New York along with the Diocese of Albany and other religious ministries in the state suing New York for requiring them to provide abortion coverage in their health insurance plans. (Photo courtesy of Becket)

WASHINGTON — A coalition of religious groups in New York, including Carmelite sisters that run a home for the elderly and dying, Anglican sisters, religious social service agencies, and the Diocese of Albany are suing New York state for requiring them to provide abortion coverage in their health insurance plans.

The groups, represented by the law firm Jones Day and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued before the New York Court of Appeals April 16 that the state’s abortion mandate infringes on the free exercise of religion for churches and service ministries.

The state law includes a narrow religious exemption for groups which inculcate religious values and primarily employ and serve those of the same faith tradition, something that did not apply to the plaintiffs involved in service ministries.

The New York State Court of Appeals had previously upheld the state’s regulation, but the U.S. Supreme Court asked it to reconsider this in light of the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia which said that said a Catholic social service agency should not have been excluded from Philadelphia’s foster care program for refusing to facilitate adoptions for same-sex couples.

“We asked the court to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance, protect religious freedom, and make clear that the mandate cannot be applied to this diverse group of religious organizations,” said Noel Francisco, a partner at Jones Day who represented the New York religious groups.

He argued before the court that the state’s mandate on abortion coverage is not neutral because the religious exemption to it only applies to some religious organizations and not others.

Some of the justices similarly questioned the exemption. Justice Anthony Cannataro asked: “What’s the relationship between who you serve and what your beliefs are?”

State financial regulators approved the abortion coverage requirement in 2017, and the Legislature codified it into law in 2022.

Becket’s background material on the case points out that “when the New York State Department of Financial Services initially proposed the abortion mandate, it promised to exempt employers with religious objections. However, after facing pressure from abortion activists, New York radically narrowed the exemption to cover only religious groups that both primarily teach religion and primarily serve and hire those who share their faith. This exception does not apply to most religious ministries that seek to serve all people, regardless of faith. For example, the exemption doesn’t extend to the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm and their Teresian Nursing Home because they serve the elderly and dying regardless of religious affiliation.”

“Forcing nuns to bankroll abortions because they believe in serving all people is unacceptable,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, in a statement. “The court should toss this mandate into the dustbin of history and allow these religious groups to focus on what they do best: caring for those in need.”

A decision is expected later this year.