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ACLU talks challenges to contraception, LGBT rights
by Matthew C. Clark

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A new wave of court cases challenging contraceptive healthcare coverage by employers on the basis of religious rights has LGBT applications for discrimination, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In a conference call on Feb. 14, Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling outlined the 45 lawsuits now underway, challenging the requirement that employers include contraceptive coverage for employees, all saying that the requirement violates their religion.

"The challenge to the contraception rule is just one area in which we're seeing institutions claiming an exemption from basic anti-discrimination rules in the name of religion," she said.

Melling said there are inns and bakeries and photography studios turning away same-sex couples, among other instances, citing religious beliefs. She also stated that this justification has been used in the civil- and women's-rights movements.

"In the states where there's currently litigation, where inns have turned away LGBT couples it's arising under anti-discrimination statutes in those states," Melling added.

These challenges are most harmful in areas where anti-discrimination laws don't include sexual orientation or gender identity. An individual in a same-sex relationship can be denied health coverage for their spouse under many existing laws, where these protections do not exist.

The Obama administration recently released a rule that employers can decide to contract, arrange, pay or refer for birth-control coverage, and that employees would receive it directly through healthcare companies, and that it would be automatic, according to Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for the ACLU.

Most of the lawsuits have been dismissed based on the Obama administration's promise to release this ruling for non-profit coverage, but for-profit companies, stating that the rule infringes on the companies owner's religious exercise rights, have brought over 20 of the lawsuits.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project states that results from the courts on these issues are mixed.

"Providing comprehensive health benefits that an employee may use to access contraception cannot burden her employer's religious liberty," Amiri said. "And an employer is not allowed to impose its religious belief on its employees."

Director of Freedom of Religion and Belief Daniel Mach said that the ACLU has a commitment to the fundamental rights of religious believers, but that the right is not absolute.

"It gives us the right to believe whatever we want about right and wrong," he said. "And we also have the right to act on our religious beliefs, or lack there of, but only so long as those action don't harm the rights and well-being of others."

"Employers don't have a right to insist that their employees health practices and benefits conform to the employer's faith. That's not religious liberty and it's certainly not fair," he said.

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