updated 10/4/2004 11:32:57 AM ET 2004-10-04T15:32:57

The Supreme Court refused Monday to disturb a ruling that forces some California religious organizations to pay for workers’ contraceptive health insurance benefits.

Justices turned down an appeal from a Roman Catholic organization which wanted the court to weigh in on a growing trend of states requiring employers that offer prescription benefits to employees to also cover birth control pills.

The court’s announcement, on the first day of its nine-month term, keeps the justices out of a divisive church-state dispute; some 20 states require employers that have prescription drug benefit plans to also cover birth control pills.

Justices had been asked to review California’s law, which exempts churches but not church-backed institutions like hospitals and charity organizations.

Catholic Charities challenged law
Catholic Charities had challenged the law, on grounds that it could not be required to pay for something it viewed as sinful. The state Supreme Court ruled against the group last spring.

Road map to the Supreme Court“If the state of California can coerce Catholic agencies to pay for contraceptives, it can force them to pay for abortions,” attorney Kevin Baine told justices in an appeal for Catholic Charities.

The case turned on the group’s First Amendment right to exercise its religious beliefs without government interference.

But Timothy Muscat, California’s deputy attorney general, said that Catholic Charities could get around the requirement by not offering insurance to employees.

The law was passed in 1999 to stop discrimination against women who had to pay more for drugs than men.

Charity not strictly religious organization
Catholic Charities does not qualify for an exemption because it offers such secular services as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to the public without directly preaching about Catholic values. Also, the group employs people of many religious affiliations.

Besides California, the Supreme Court was told that the states that have laws requiring insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives are Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, 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 Catholic Charities of Sacramento v. California, 03-1618.

In other rulings announced Monday, the court:

  • Let stand a lower-court ruling that telemarketers’ rights to free speech are not violated by the government’s nationwide do-not-call list. Without comment, the justices rejected an appeal by commercial telemarketers against the lower-court ruling, which upheld as constitutional the popular program in which consumers can put their names on a list if they do not want to be called by telemarketers.
  • Rejected an appeal from ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who lost his job after defying a federal order to dismantle a Ten Commandments monument. Moore has become a high-profile crusader for Ten Commandment monuments as a result of the dispute over his own 2 1/2-ton granite display in the state courthouse.
  • Declined to decide whether random drug testing of firefighters is constitutionally justified by a city’s interest in promoting public safety. The high court, without comment, let stand an Arizona Supreme Court ruling that the drug tests violated Mesa, Ariz., firefighter Craig Petersen’s privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment. The Arizona court said the city did not provide enough evidence that substance abuse was a widespread problem among the firefighters to warrant testing.
  • Refused to hear a challenge to Montana campaign contribution limits by critics who contended the strict rules infringed on free speech rights. The court, without comment, let stand a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the caps on contributions by individuals and political action committees were justified to prevent even the appearance of corruption in the state political process.
  • Rejected a lawyer’s long-shot bid to challenge the U.S. detention of Saddam Hussein as unconstitutional. Attorney Curtis F.J. Doebbler of Washington had asked the court to review the case as an indigent appeal without the usual $300 filing fee. The request required special court approval since the legal papers did not have Saddam’s signature vouching that he had no assets. The Supreme Court declined to grant the waiver of its court rules, effectively ending the case unless Doebbler gets the documentation from Saddam. The two have never talked.

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