SAN FRANCISCO — A Roman Catholic charitable organization must include birth control coverage in its health care plan for workers even though it morally opposes contraception, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 6-to-1 ruling could reach far beyond the 183 full-time employees of Catholic Charities and affect thousands of workers at Catholic hospitals and other church-backed institutions throughout the state.
The high court said Catholic Charities is no different from other businesses in California, which is one of 20 states that require company-provided health plans to include contraception coverage if the plans have prescription drug benefits. In California, “religious employers,” such as churches, are exempt from the requirement.
The charity does not offer insurance to pay for birth control because it follows Roman Catholic Church dogma, which considers contraception a sin. The charity argued unsuccessfully that it should be exempted from state law along with the church.
The Supreme Court ruled that the charity was not a religious employer because it offered such secular services as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to the public without directly preaching about Catholic values.
The court also noted that the charity employed workers of differing religions.
“Moreover, Catholic Charities serves people of all faith backgrounds, a significant majority of [whom] do not share [its] Roman Catholic faith,” Justice Joyce Werdegar wrote for the majority opinion.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown dissented, writing that the Legislature’s definition of a “religious employer” was too limiting if excludes faith-based nonprofit groups like Catholic Charities.
“Here we are dealing with an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization’s expression of it religious tenets and sense of mission,” Brown wrote. “The government is not accidentally or incidentally interfering with religious practice; it is doing so willfully by making a judgment about what is or is not a religion.”
President Bush in October nominated Brown to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but her appointment has been opposed by Democrats in the U.S. Senate who view the black jurist as a conservative judicial activist who would limit abortion rights and corporate liability and oppose affirmative action.
Similar laws in 20 states
Versions of the law considered in Monday’s ruling have been adopted in 20 states after lawmakers concluded that private employee prescription plans without contraceptive benefits discriminated against women.
Civil rights groups, health care companies and Catholic organizations filed extensive position papers with the court. Most wrangled over the rights of a religion to practice what it preached and the newly acquired rights of thousands of women employed by church-affiliated groups to be insured for contraceptives.
Catholic Charities had a $76 million budget in California in 2002 and provided social services to persons of any religion or background. It does not demand that its workers be Catholic or share the church’s philosophy.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists viewed the dispute as a health issue, arguing that contraception gave families a chance to plan for a pregnancy, making for healthier mothers and babies.
The 20 states that require private-sector insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Washington.
The case is S099822, Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc. v. Superior Court of Sacramento County.
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