One of last week’s biggest controversies involved a proposed federal regulation that would have required health insurance plans, including those offered by Catholic hospitals and schools, to offer free contraception to their employees under their health insurance.
But the federal law would likely have had little impact in New York, where a similar requirement has been on the books since 2002, forcing religious institutions in the state to provide the contraception coverage.
Elmer Streeter, a spokesman for St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, said St. Peter’s began providing contraception to employees after the New York law went into effect.
“We follow the law of the state,” Streeter said. “We’re required to do it, and we currently do it.” He said that the federal law would likely have no impact on St. Peter’s.
The Rev. Kenneth Doyle, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, said the diocese “follows the state law, but under protest.” He described requiring contraception as “an infringement on religious freedom. I believe that not only Catholics, but many Americans, see this as an infringement on religious freedom.”
On Friday, President Barack Obama announced a compromise, saying his administration will not require religious institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide free contraception coverage. Instead, women who work for such institutions that object to providing contraception will be able to obtain it directly from their insurance companies.
People on both sides of the issue expressed support for the compromise, with Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Health Association of the United States issuing positive statements.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said he needed to see the new regulation in writing.
“The devil’s going to be in the details,” Poust said. “Until I see the legislation, I’m going to be skeptical, but also hopeful that this could be a way forward.”
Tracey Brooks, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates, an Albany-based organization that represents the state’s Planned Parenthoods, said she was pleased. “We’re glad the Obama administration reaffirmed its commitment to contraception,” she said. “This proposed solution is going to allow even more women in New York to access contraception. That’s what preventive health care is all about.”
Brooks said she didn’t understand why Catholic groups in New York were so opposed to the original rule. “We’ve lived with this policy for going on 10 years.”
New York is one of 28 states that already require insurance coverage for contraception.
In some ways, the fight over the federal contraception requirement mirrors the battle that took place in New York a decade ago, when the state’s contraception requirement was signed into law by former Gov. George Pataki.
Though the state law does exempt religious organizations that employ and serve members of that faith, such as churches, synagogues and mosques, the New York State Catholic Conference and other religious organizations considered that provision too narrow.
Ten religious organizations, including Catholic Charities of Albany, challenged the law in court. But in 2006, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, upheld it, concluding that “when a religious organization chooses to hire non-believers it must, at least to some degree, be prepared to accept neutral regulations imposed to protect those employees’ legitimate interests in doing what their own beliefs permit.” In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a request to review the Court of Appeals decision.
Poust said some Catholic institutions, such as the Archdiocese of New York, decided to establish self-insurance plans after the 2002 law went into effect, because state mandates do not apply to self-insurance. He said that most Catholic groups simply complied with the law, but under duress. “There’s not much you can do,” he said.
Poust said he couldn’t comment on how the New York State Catholic Conference handles health insurance for its employees and whether the organization provides contraception coverage or is exempt from the requirement. However, he said the organization is not self-insured.
The controversial contraception requirement is part of the federal health care reform bill passed in 2010.
Doyle and Poust both consider the federal law worse than the state law, because it also requires that insurers provide a range of contraceptive services, including sterilization services and emergency contraception.
Scott Lemieux, an assistant professor of political science at The College of St. Rose, a Catholic college in Albany, has written in support of expanding contraceptive access on his blog, Lawyers, Guns & Money, and on Friday he praised Obama’s decision. He said the president’s compromise is designed to appeal more to moderate Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic hospitals, than conservative Catholic groups such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“This is probably not going to mollify the council of bishops, but he has gained other allies without sacrificing anything of substance,” Lemieux said.
He said it doesn’t matter whether employees receive contraception through their employer or insurance company, so long as they receive it. “How it works out administratively isn’t terribly important.”
Lemieux said his blogging on contraception hasn’t been an issue at his work. “The College of St. Rose is pretty secular for a Catholic institution,” he noted.
The fact that New York already has a contraception requirement didn’t stop Catholic organizations in the state from joining the fight against the federal regulation. Earlier in the week, Poust said that the New York State Catholic Conference opposed the federal requirement, for the same reasons it opposed the 2002 New York law.
“We think it’s a two-pronged violation of religious liberty,” Poust said. “It requires us to teach something that we think is sinful. We also think it’s unconstitutional. It’s making a determination about what constitutes a religious organization. The state doesn’t have the right to arbitrarily define what is Catholic and what’s not Catholic.”
Bulletins at parishes in the Albany Diocese recently included a letter from Bishop Howard Hubbard outlining the Catholic Church’s opposition to the proposed law.
“The federal government, which is designed to be ‘of, by, and for the people,’ has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people — the Catholic population — and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic church,” Hubbard wrote.
Hubbard concluded, “In light of this government intrusion on religious freedom during the forthcoming Lenten Season, I would ask of you two things. First, as a community of faith we commit ourselves to prayer and fasting that wisdom and justice may prevail, and religious liberty may be restored. Without God, we can do nothing; with God, nothing is impossible. Second, I would also recommend visiting www.usccb.org/conscience, to learn more about this severe assault on religious liberty, and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the government’s decision.”
The Catholic Church considers it immoral to prevent conception by artificial means, such as condoms, birth control and sterilization. Even so, surveys have found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptives — a figure that mirrors usage in the general population.
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