Once again, a state court is chipping away at religious liberty. And once again, the Church is the law’s target.

In 2002, the New York Legislature passed the Women’s Health and Wellness Act. It requires all hospitals, including religious ones, to provide contraceptive coverage as part of its health plan. The law applies to all religious institutions, even those, such as Catholic hospitals, which believe contraception is immoral and assisting others to obtain it also wrong. The only exception the law allows is one almost impossible to meet: The institution can be considered a “religious employer” and thus exempt only is if it is composed of, and provides services to, people who are primarily of the same religion. A similar statute was upheld in California against a similar challenge from Catholic organizations.

Catholic Charities of Albany has sued the state of New York, arguing that the law violated basic principles of religious liberty in the federal and New York constitutions. Two lower courts disagreed, and have upheld the law. The case was appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. As Piero Tozzi, an attorney at the law firm of Winston & Strawn LLP, which recently submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Campus Crusade for Christ and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights challenging the statute as a violation of the state constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom, put it, “The … legislation signals a radical world-view shift from a Judeo-Christian based ethic to an illiberal secular one where conscientious adherence to the old principles of morality cannot even be accommodated.”

In October, the Court of Appeals issued its decision upholding the statute. The court found that the Women’s Health and Wellness Act did not violate the federal constitution because the burden on religious groups’ practice of their faith is an “incidental result” of the law, in that the law itself does not explicitly target religious institutions or believers. The court also found that the legislation did not violate the state constitution.

The theory behind both the New York and California laws, however, is deeply pernicious for religious liberty generally, and the Catholic understanding of faith in particular. These laws, and the court decisions finding them constitutional, rest on two false assumptions about religious liberty.

First, they assume that religious liberty is but one interest among many, and that the legislature can trample upon long-established religious freedoms if it finds some other interest — however defined — to be worth promoting. In New York’s case, the lower court conceded that the law “undeniably” infringed on the ability of religiously-affiliated institutions to practice their faith. Nevertheless, the court found that principles of “gender equity” trumped religious liberty. The Court of Appeals echoed this theme, finding that the state’s “substantial interest in fostering equality” could trump long-established religious principles.

The danger in this understanding of religious freedom should be obvious: There is no limit to what “interests” may be used to trump religious freedom. The pressures to pass laws supportive of specific interest groups at the expense of less-defined notions such as “religious liberty” can be enormous.

The New York Constitution recognizes this: It states that “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all mankind.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared that such language “makes sense only if the right to free exercise was viewed as generally superior to general legislation.”

In other words, in New York, as in many other states, religious freedom stands apart from normal legislation, protected against the normal law-making process because of its importance in the American understanding of liberty and in many individuals’ lives. While one may agree with the principle of gender equity or guaranteeing adequate medical care to all as worthwhile legislative goals, the assumption that religious liberty may be discarded when an as-yet unlimited set of “state interests” are asserted is a dangerous one.

The laws contain a second false assumption: They seriously misunderstand the importance of religious practice to religious liberty. Religious freedom is not only freedom to believe; it is also a freedom to act on that belief. Religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, see their work as in part motivated by bringing charity to all, including people not of their own faith. Such an understanding, which can be traced to the Church’s earliest days, is simply inseparable from the faith.

That is why the law’s “exemption” is ludicrous. Permitting California and now New York institutions to be exempt from the law only if they employ and serve people of primarily the same faith, basically confines Catholic hospitals to convents or monasteries. Not only does this violate constitutional protections on religious liberty, it also denies the reality that religious believers are often committed to combining faith with practice in the world, beyond the confines of their own religious community.

Laws like this force all institutions into a strait jacket of uniformity, and deny particular groups their own particular ways of practicing their faith. In particular, the Court of Appeals found that the rights of employees — who presumably know they are being hired by a religious institution — trump the rights of their employers to set the tone for their institutions. This is a recipe for either increased separation between religious communities, or will force religious institutions to close their doors for fear of being party to actions they consider immoral.

The New York law represents a disturbing view of religious liberty, and one that has far-reaching implications for all believers.

Gerald J. Russello is a

Fellow of the Chesterton Institute

at Seton Hall University.