May 21, 2024 at 2:14 p.m.

N.Y.’s highest court upholds state’s abortion mandate

Diocese of Albany vows to continue fight

By Staff report and OSV News | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

New York’s highest court on May 21 denied a challenge by religious groups - including the Diocese of Albany - in their battle against the state’s abortion mandate that would require them to provide and pay for abortions in their health care plans.

After the ruling the Diocese issued a statement saying that they “will again seek review by the United States Supreme Court.”

“While we respect the decision issued today by the New York State Court of Appeals we will again seek review by the United States Supreme Court of this critical challenge to religious freedom by filing a timely petition for a writ of certiorari,” the statement read. “The United States Supreme Court previously granted our petition for a writ of certiorari on this constitutional challenge and vacated the New York lower court decision with a remand direction for further review.

“At stake is regulatory action by a state to require religious organizations to provide and pay for coverage of abortion in their employee health plans. We believe this is unconstitutional since it involves government entanglement in the fundamental rights of free exercise of faith and conscience. The final decision on constitutionality will be by the United States Supreme Court.”

In Diocese of Albany v. Vullo, a case that has bounced around state court for a few years, a coalition of religious groups, including Catholic women religious and dioceses and faith-based social ministries, sued New York after the state mandated they cover abortion in their employee health insurance plans in violation of their religious beliefs. Among the Catholic appellants in the case are the dioceses of Albany and Ogdensburg; the Brooklyn, Ogdensburg and Albany dioceses' respective Catholic Charities; DePaul Housing Management and Teresian House in Albany.

The state Department of Financial Services, or DFS, included the mandate in 2017, although abortion has been legal for decades prior.

Dennis Poust, executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, called the decision “wrongly worded.”

“We are disappointed in this ruling and believe it is wrongly decided. We continue to believe that the regulatory action by the state, as well as subsequent legislative action, requiring religious organizations to provide and pay for coverage of abortion in its employee health plans is unconstitutional and unjust,” Poust said in a statement.

“It will come as a surprise to exactly no one that abortion violates the tenets of the Catholic Church. By forcing this mandate on our ministries, the state has unconstitutionally entangled itself in the free exercise of our faith. We fully expect the plaintiffs ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn this ruling and the earlier decisions on which it is based. The Supreme Court already has vacated this New York court decision once, remanding it to be reconsidered. We are confident the Court will grant a writ of certiorari again now that the New York courts have disregarded recent Supreme Court religious liberty precedent.”

Poust then took issue with Governor Kathy Hochul who called the plaintiffs in the case “right-wing extremists,” and asked for an apology.

“Governor Kathy Hochul could have simply put out a statement supporting the court’s ruling. Instead, she delved into name-calling, referring to the plaintiffs in the case as ‘right-wing extremists,’ ” Poust said.

“To be clear, this case had nothing to do with the legality of abortion; it only involved the question of whether the state could force religious employers to violate the tenets of their faith by mandating coverage for abortion in employee health insurance plans.

 “Last week Governor Hochul met Pope Francis at the Vatican during a conference on the climate crisis that he hosted, and she spoke fondly of the experience. But by the governor’s definition, Pope Francis himself would qualify as a ‘right-wing extremist’ because he does not share her views on abortion.

“Governor Hochul’s words regarding the plaintiffs are divisive and offensive. She should apologize. Among the plaintiffs in this case, deemed “right-wing extremists" by Governor Hochul, are: the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, Sisterhood of St. Mary, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, St. Gregory the Great Roman Catholic Church Society of Amherst, N.Y., First Bible Baptist Church, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Teresian House Nursing Home.”

New York legalized abortion through 24 weeks with a Republican-controlled Legislature three years before the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision (overturned in 2022) legalized it nationwide. In 2019, the state under Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, expanded legal abortion even further throughout the third trimester. 

In 2017, when the state's abortion mandate was originally proposed, the DFS promised to exempt employers with religious objections. However, the exemption was since narrowed to cover religious groups that primarily teach religion and mostly serve and hire only those who share their faith.

As a result, an exemption cannot apply to Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities, which seek to serve all in need, regardless of faith.

In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the rulings by New York state courts that left the mandate in place and asked them to reconsider the case in light of its ruling in Fulton v. Philadelphia. In that case, the high court ruled Philadelphia's refusal to contract with Catholic Social Services for the provision of foster care services -- unless CSS agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents -- violated the First Amendment's free exercise clause.


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