- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Roman Catholic charity must include birth-control coverage in its health care plan for workers even though it is morally opposed to contraception, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 6-1 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 state’s high court said Catholic Charities is no different from other businesses in California, which is one of 20 states, including Maryland, 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 argued unsuccessfully that it should be exempted from state law along with the church. It doesn’t offer insurance to pay for birth control because it follows Roman Catholic teachings, which sees contraception as a sin.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the charity is not a religious employer because it offers 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 employs workers of different religions.

“Moreover, Catholic Charities serves people of all faith backgrounds, a significant majority of whom do not share its Roman Catholic faith,” Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the majority opinion.

The California Catholic Conference, which represents the church’s policy position in the state, said it was disappointed with the ruling and feared that it could open the door to mandated insurance coverage of abortion.

“It shows no respect to our religious organizations,” spokeswoman Carol Hogan said.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the ruling, calling it “a great victory for California women and reproductive freedom.”

Justice Janice Rogers Brown dissented, writing that the Legislature’s definition of a “religious employer” is too limiting if it excludes faith-based nonprofit groups such as Catholic Charities.

“Here we are dealing with an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization’s expression of its religious tenets and sense of mission,” Justice 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.”

Versions of the law considered in yesterday’s ruling have been adopted in 20 states after lawmakers concluded that private employee prescription plans without contraceptive benefits discriminated against women.

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