Church Group Must Pay for Contraceptives, Court Says

California Panel Rules Against Catholic Charities of Sacramento

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SACRAMENTO, California, JULY 4, 2001 ( Catholic and pro-life groups assailed an appeals court decision that could force Catholic Charities of Sacramento to provide contraceptives and abortifacient drugs in its employees´ health insurance plans.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled Monday that, basically, the Church must provide contraception coverage if it offers drug coverage to workers it employs in secular jobs, such as at hospitals and universities.

Critics said the court decision tramples on the religious beliefs of Catholics, according to Catholic World News.

«In California, so-called diverse lifestyles are welcomed — but not if you are a practicing Catholic,» said Judie Brown, president of American Life League. «The court´s ruling is an act of hypocrisy and judicial tyranny which must be overturned.»

Proponents of the state law that dictates contraceptive coverage, including abortion provider Planned Parenthood, applauded the decision.

The group´s California chapter was a co-sponsor of the 1999 law that requires coverage of contraceptives for women if the insurance also covers reproductive health issues for men.

While the law allows limited exceptions for explicitly religious organizations, such as dioceses, it does not exempt religious groups that do not hire or serve just members of that faith.

Kathy Kneer, president of Planned Parenthood of California, said, «Catholic Charities believed that although 75% of its employees are not Catholic, nor are the vast majority of the people they serve, they should qualify for the exemption. Both the Superior Court of Sacramento and the California Court of Appeals disagreed.»

Catholic Charities´ attorney James Sweeney said his clients are considering an appeal.

«I am disappointed and seriously troubled by the court´s opinion in this case,» the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. «This substantially burdens the religious freedom rights of the Catholic Church in California.»

He said the Church does not divide its ministries into secular and nonsecular portions — nor should the state.

In 1994, California´s Legislature became the first to adopt a measure requiring employers to offer contraception methods as part of their prescription drug benefits. The bill was vetoed three times by Republican Governor Pete Wilson before it was signed into law by Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 1999. It took effect Jan. 1, 2000.

The law exempts Church-based groups, but not policies for their secular workers. The ruling is the first in the nation to address the constitutionality of such state-mandated requirements, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Other states have adopted similar laws, but their so-called conscience clauses have been broader — and acceptable to the Catholic Church. New York, however, is considering restricted exemptions similar to those in California.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a federal court in Washington state recently ruled that an employer´s failure to offer contraceptive coverage in its prescription policy is discriminatory.

The California law exempts nonprofit religious groups whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values and which employ and serve primarily people who share their religious beliefs. A lower court had ruled that applying the law to one of the Church´s main charitable arms, Catholic Charities, did not violate federal or state constitutions.

The appellate court upheld that decision, ruling that the law and its exemptions do not discriminate against the Catholic Church. Catholic Charities USA also had filed briefs challenging the law.

«Requiring the policies to cover prescription contraceptive methods — so as not to discriminate against women — cannot be said to inhibit religion, even if its parent entity is a religious organization that believes the use of contraceptives is a sin,» wrote Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland in the court´s opinion. In its lawsuit, Catholic Charities had asked the appellate court for an injunction barring the state from enforcing the law.

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