N.Y. Hospital Lawsuit Should Be a Warning

ALBANY, N.Y. (CNS) – The lawsuit filed against a Catholic hospital by a same-sex couple seeking spousal benefits is a “cautionary reminder of the true implications of the redefinition of marriage on religious liberty,” according to the New York State Catholic Conference.

The lawsuit was filed anonymously June 19 in a federal court in New York by a female hospital employee and her spouse who said their spousal health benefits had been denied. The couple is seeking past and future health care benefits as well as a declaration that they are entitled to the benefits.

Defendants named in the lawsuit are St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, N.Y., and Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, the hospital’s insurance company. The woman who filed the suit works at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison, N.Y., a division of St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

According to the lawsuit, the couple married last year when same-sex marriage was legalized in New York.

Self-insured employers such as St. Joseph’s are governed by federal regulations and exempt from many state laws, including New York’s Marriage Equality Act. These employers can decide if they want to provide benefits to same-sex spouses and can deny coverage under the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

In the lawsuit, the employee said it was discriminatory and unconstitutional to deny coverage based on the federal definition of marriage.

Richard Barnes, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said in a June 21 statement that the lawsuit confirms what the state Catholic Conference predicted would happen a year ago, when its objections were dismissed as “silly and far-fetched.”

“We have seen come to pass exactly what we warned would occur,” he said. “An individual is suing a Catholic facility, attempting to use the force of law to compel the hospital (and all Catholic employers) to violate their religious beliefs.”

He also pointed out the significance of the timing of the lawsuit, noting that it was filed just before the U.S. bishops’ “fortnight for freedom” campaign – a two-week period of prayer, education and action aimed at explaining how a federal health care contraceptive mandate violates religious principles.

Barnes pointed out that a year ago when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “made the redefinition of marriage his top legislative priority, we warned not only that such action would have negative consequences for society, but also that it would infringe on the religious liberty of Catholic employers.” Barnes said these warnings went unheeded, as advocates for same-sex marriage insisted that the state’s Marriage Equality Act would not impact religious institutions.

The Catholic Conference warned that the religious exemption language included in the legislation was “insufficient to protect religious institutions.”

Now, in response to the lawsuit against the Catholic hospital and its insurer, Barnes said the governor and the state legislature should “pass legislation immediately to provide a full religious exemption to this ill-conceived law.”