- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Roman Catholic organizations in Maryland will not be forced to provide health insurance that covers contraceptives in the wake of a California Supreme Court ruling because Maryland law has broader exemptions for religious groups.

The California Supreme Court ruled 6-1 Monday that a Catholic charity must provide employees with birth control coverage regardless of the church’s opposition to contraception.

The court said religious employers like churches could be excused from the law, but not Catholic Charities because it operates like a normal business and offers secular services like low-income housing and counseling to people of all faiths.

The ruling has potential implications for 19 states, including Maryland, that have similar contraceptive-coverage laws on the books.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the state policy arm for the church, said Maryland’s law provides a broader definition of a religious organization than California’s.

“The Maryland law clearly protects religious organizations,” said Jeff Caruso, associate director for social concerns, who called the California ruling “a case of how the court is trying to define religion.”

Maryland’s health insurance law mandates that employers must cover birth control in their workers’ health insurance policies. It does not apply to employees covered under federal insurance plans, self-insured employers or those with out-of-state insurance contracts.

The law allows exemptions for religious groups if covering birth control for employees violates the organization’s beliefs and practices.

A religious organization is defined as an entity that is set up exclusively for religious purposes and has obtained nonprofit tax status, according to the Maryland Insurance Administration, the agency in charge of insurance matters.

The agency said it was not aware of any recent challenges to state law but is reviewing the law closely for any implications from the California ruling, said spokeswoman Debbie Rosen McKerrow.

Those implications threaten the religious foundations of the 1,640 agencies, 280 of which are in Maryland, that are affiliated with the church, said the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, spokesman for Catholic Charities USA, an Alexandria network for the charities.

“Just because our charities are incorporated does not mean they are not a part of the church,” Father Hehir said.

Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the sole dissenter in the California ruling, 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.”

While the ruling does not determine what other states will do, it will influence the decisions of similar cases in the future, Father Hehir said.

The 20 states that have a contraceptive-coverage law 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.

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