Case Alleging Statute Protecting Reproductive Privacy Violates Religious Employer’s Rights Dismissed

Judge Thomas J. McAvoy of the Northern District of New York on Wednesday dismissed a case brought by the head of a company operating “crisis pregnancy centers” in New York City who alleged that a state statute meant to prevent employers from discriminating against employees due to their reproductive health decisions was instead discriminatory against him and his company because of their religious beliefs.

President and co-founder of Evergreen Association Inc. Christopher T. Slattery argued that a 2019 amendment of the New York Labor Law violates his company’s rights — those of free exercise, freedom of association and of speech, and equal protection — as an employer with a religious philosophy. Evergreen does business as Expectant Mother Care and EMC FrontLine Pregnancy Centers, which are facilities with “the morally and religiously motivated mission of saving children from abortion and providing alternatives to abortion,” according to the plaintiffs.

Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that Section 203-e, enacted to “prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on the employee’s or dependent’s reproductive health decisions, and to provide remedies for such violations,” is in violation of his right as a religious employer to have and enforce a policy that says employees “must not obtain, assist in obtaining, or condone abortion, and must not be involved in sexual relationships outside of marriage (such as cohabitation),” the complaint said.

The defendants, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, and New York Attorney General Letitia James, moved to dismiss the four-count complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted; the court examined and dismissed all counts accordingly.

Finding that the statute at issue “is obviously neutral on its face,” the court said the plaintiffs’ free exercise claim fell short because the statute applies to all employers, not just religious ones. The constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion means people can believe and practice whatever religion they want — but the court qualified this, noting that it does not relieve these individuals of complying with neutral and generally applicable laws.

“At the same time, a profession of religious faith does not permit an observant religious person to ignore any law that contradicts that person’s religious beliefs: the Supreme Court has ‘never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate,’” the court said.

On the free speech question, the plaintiffs argued that “because of their unique mission, who they hire is a form of speech,” which means that the statute violates that right. However, the court sided with the defendants, who argued that speech is not implicated by the statute — rather, the statute “regulates conduct” and does not ban employers from voicing their views.

Conversely, on the freedom of association count, the court sided with the plaintiffs’ characterization of themselves as an “expressive association”; however, it still found that they failed to state an expressive association claim.

“The Court … finds that the statute in question imposes some incidental limitations on the Plaintiffs’ associational rights, but that those limitations do not place a restriction on their ability to advocate against abortion or contraception, much less a severe one,” the court said.

The court adjudicated in favor of the defendants on the remaining claims.

The plaintiffs are represented by Thomas More Society and Clayton Plaza Law Group LC. The defendants are represented by state counsel.