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Vol. 78/No. 1      January 6, 2014

Court ‘religious freedom’ ruling
is blow to workers’ rights
Should bosses be able to deny employee health insurance coverage for certain drugs and medical procedures based on employers’ religious beliefs? A recent federal court ruling said yes.

The case involves a suit filed by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and several other Catholic organizations against implementing federal regulations put in place under the Affordable Care Act. It requires company health insurance policies to include contraceptive care, or authorize another group to voluntarily provide the coverage, or pay steep fines. The plaintiffs argued that even facilitating their employees’ access to coverage would violate their beliefs and that they should be exempt from the provision.

On Dec. 13, Federal District Judge Brian Cogan backed the Catholic groups’ claim and issued a permanent injunction barring the Department of Health and Human Services from implementing the regulation.

“While religious liberty is fundamental, it does not give employers the right to impose their beliefs on employees by denying contraceptive coverage and discriminating against their women employees,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jennifer Lee in a statement emailed to the Militant Dec. 20. The ACLU had filed a brief in the case opposing the Catholic organizations’ lawsuit.

Other plaintiffs included the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, the Catholic Health Care System, Catholic Health Services of Long Island, Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx and Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island.

Together these institutions employ tens of thousands of workers. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, for example, employs almost 10,000 people, nearly 8,000 of whom are lay people. The Catholic Health Services of Long Island, which includes six hospitals and three nursing homes, has a health plan covering 25,000 people. Among those it employs at St. Joseph Hospital are members of the New York State Nurses Association, who have their own union health plan. Catholic Health Services has been pressuring the union to accept health coverage that “would be consistent with Catholic teachings on abortion, contraception, and sterilization,” according to a court document issued in the case.

The Barack Obama administration had previously exempted as “religious employers” churches like the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre from providing contraception coverage.

According to the ACLU, 88 similar cases have been filed nationwide, including one in early December by the University of Notre Dame. Eighty-five percent of these are still pending in the courts.

The cases are the latest example of the Catholic Church’s efforts to impose church doctrine in public life under the misleading rubric of “freedom of religion.” In soliciting public acceptance, the church hierarchy seeks to conflate its campaign for greater influence in politics with the right to freedom of worship — the right of individuals to worship as they choose, free from government interference. Freedom of worship, a conquest of bourgeois revolutionary struggles against feudal absolutism, will forever remain an indispensable right for the working class. The religious hierarchy’s “freedom of religion” campaign, on the other hand, is a form of its opposite.
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