March 10, 2001
volume 12, no. 69

Egan's Right on Conscience Clause

By Alex Storoznyski , New York Daily News

    NEW YORK (New York Daily News from - Cardinal Egan has jumped into a battle that puts a new twist on the separation of church and state. In this political dispute, Egan is on the side, if not of the angels, then of the U.S. Constitution.

    The state Senate and Assembly have passed health insurance bills that would require employers and their health insurers to provide women with additional coverage for mammograms, Pap smears and osteoporosis screening. This is a wonderful advance for women's health.

    Trouble is, the Assembly bill forces employers to provide insurance coverage for birth control, even when the employer is a religious institution that opposes contraception as does the Catholic Church.

    The Senate bill would sensibly allow a religious employer to opt out if contraception contradicts the religion's doctrine.

    It's not just the Catholic Church that opposes the Assembly version of this legislation. At least one Orthodox Jewish organization also supports the conscience clause, as it is called.

    As a general rule, insurers should cover contraceptives for women, especially if they pay for Viagra for men. But that principle of fairness must give way when it conflicts with a higher principle: the freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment the separation of church and state.

    Legislatures in many other states agree. Of the 20 states that require insurance companies to pay for birth control, 15 have a conscience clause.

    Despite this, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) says he considers the clause a "make-or-break" issue for himself and his fellow Democrats. Their concern is that the language is so broad that any employer could get out of the cost of coverage simply by claiming a religious objection.

    Surely legislators can draft a law that limits the application of the conscience clause to religious institutions and denies it to secular employers. If those 15 other states can write successful laws, why is it a problem for Albany?

    By trying to force its will on the Catholic Church, the Assembly will deny expanded health coverage and birth control to millions of women across the state because failure to compromise on this issue means that no bill will pass.

    That's ludicrous, considering that the conscience clause would probably affect fewer than 15,000 women.

    Employees in the city's Catholic hospitals can already get contraceptives from health plans provided by the hospital workers' union. And by the time you subtract nuns and women who are not in their child-bearing years, this exemption would cover only a few thousand women who work for Catholic schools, the archdiocese or the church itself.

    People who don't want government impinging on their rights should be just as offended when government tries to go too far in the other direction.

    Let's hope Egan can get Assembly Democrats to see that theirs is not the only way.

March 10, 2001
volume 12, no. 69
USA News
Return to Today's Issue