Catholic Group Must Cover Birth Control
Catholic Charities must include contraceptives in its employee prescription drug coverage, even though the church believes birth control is sinful, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The 6-1 ruling came in a case that has been watched around the country as a contest between advocates of making contraceptives widely available to women and religious groups that have sought broad exemptions based on their faiths.
California is one of 20 states that require employers offering prescription drug benefits to also provide coverage for contraceptives. The state’s law requiring coverage, passed in 1999, exempts churches. Catholic Charities argued that as an arm of the Roman Catholic Church, it should be exempt as well. The justices rejected that claim in a ruling that is expected to affect other religious employers, including hospitals and colleges, and influence courts in other states.
The law does not affect “internal church governance” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the majority. Rather, it affects “a nonprofit public benefit corporation and its employees, many of whom do not belong to the Catholic Church.”
Justice Janice Rogers Brown was the sole dissenter, arguing that California’s law defined religious employers too narrowly. The law exempts religious employers only if they primarily employ and serve people of their own faith and try to inculcate religious values.
“This is such a crabbed and restrictive view of religion that it would define the ministry of Jesus Christ as a secular activity,” wrote Brown, whom President Bush has nominated for a federal appeals’ court vacancy in Washington.
Monday’s ruling in Catholic Charities vs. Superior Court was the first by a state high court to decide the constitutionality of such laws. A New York law that used California’s as a model is under legal challenge, and religious groups have threatened to fight similar laws in other states.
In part because the law was viewed as a national test case, dozens of groups weighed in with briefs. Supporting the state were women’s groups, civil libertarians, medical organizations and advocates for women’s reproductive freedom. On the other side, several religious organizations, including religiously affiliated hospitals, supported the Catholic Church.
State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer called the decision “a huge victory for working women in California.”
“It is plainly discriminatory for health and disability insurance plans to not cover contraceptives that were approved by the FDA almost 40 years ago, yet offer coverage for Viagra as soon as that drug was approved by the FDA,” Lockyer said.
Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said the church felt “disappointment and sadness.”
“For us, it was never really about contraceptive insurance,” he said. “It was about our ability to practice our faith.”
Richard Ackerman, a lawyer with the Pro-Family Law Center in Sacramento, described the ruling as “a horrible constitutional disaster” and criticized it for prioritizing gender over religious freedom. He observed that approved drug benefits include coverage for the morning-after pill.
“I think the justices who were responsible for this ought to be removed from office,” said Ackerman, who represented the Life Legal Defense Fund in the case. “It is time for a recall.”
In passing the Women’s Contraceptive Equity Act, the Legislature determined that excluding contraceptive coverage from drug plans discriminated against women. The Legislature cited evidence that women during their reproductive years spent as much as 68% more than men in out-of-pocket healthcare costs, primarily for contraceptives and other related expenses.
Catholic Charities contended the law violated the California and U.S. constitutions by interfering with the free exercise of religion.
The nonprofit group, which describes itself as an organ of the Roman Catholic Church, has agencies in communities throughout the nation and provides elder care, counseling, food, clothing and housing for the poor. It offers health insurance, including prescription drug coverage, to its 183 full-time employees at their Sacramento headquarters.
The contraceptive law applies only to employers offering drug insurance, and Catholic Charities could have avoided the conflict by discontinuing prescription benefits.
But Catholic Charities said it was obligated by its religious teachings to offer drug coverage to its workers, and yet could not include benefits for contraceptives because the church considers birth control a sin. It acknowledged that it provided its services to people of all religions and employed people of different faiths.
Werdegar, writing for the court, agreed that the law conflicted with the group’s religious views. " But this does not mean the Legislature has decided a religious question,” Werdegar wrote for the court.
She also brushed aside the group’s contention that the Legislature deliberately interfered in a debate among Catholics over birth control and sided with those who ignore the church’s teaching.
Rather than expressing a view on the church’s teachings, some legislators may have voted for the law “because they wished to reduce the inequitable financial burden of healthcare on women, without regard to any religious dispute over the propriety of artificial contraception,” Werdegar wrote.
Monday’s ruling said the equal protection clause of the California Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, and any such bias must be given the highest level of scrutiny by courts.
Margaret Crosby, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, called the decision a “shining example of California leadership in reproductive freedom.”
“This is a cutting edge nationally because advocates for reproductive health are securing passage of these laws and at the same time religious organizations are lobbying hard for very broad religious exemptions,” Crosby said.
Dolejsi, of the California Catholic Conference, said no decision has been made about a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some dioceses have been providing contraceptive coverage “under protest,” he said, and he was unsure whether benefits coverage might change as a result of the ruling.
“The Catholic bishops in each diocese are going to have to determine how we move at this point,” Dolejsi said.
Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange said he was “very disappointed” and complained that the court’s decision “appears to intervene in church policy.”
On the likelihood of an appeal, he said: “I think it’s something the bishops will look very carefully at.”
“Obviously, the ruling is a great disappointment,” said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “At the end of an 80-page decision, we’re still left with the government defining what is Catholic and what’s not Catholic.”
Times staff writer William Lobdell contributed to this report.