Catholic-Affiliated Charity Must Provide Contraceptive Coverage to Employees, California Court Rules
Catholic Charities, a church-affiliated social services organization, must provide contraceptive coverage for its female employees in California if it provides other prescription coverage, a California appellate court ruled yesterday. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the ruling upholds the constitutionality of a 1999 state law that requires employers with prescription plans to offer contraception, which Catholic Charities of Sacramento had challenged. Arthur Scotland, one of the three judges on the panel, wrote, "[H]aving chosen to provide employee health insurance coverage with prescription drug benefits, it simply is required [that the charity] provide benefits that do not discriminate against women." Scotland added that Catholic Charities "is not required to support the principle of contraception" and "remains free to advise employees and the public that it opposes contraceptive drugs and devices" (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3). The law includes an exemption for not-for-profit, religious organizations "whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values and which primarily emplo[y] and serv[e] people who share their religious beliefs" (Guccione, Los Angeles Times, 7/3).
Catholic Charities, which employs and serves mostly non-Catholics, had claimed that the exemption "was too limited in scope" and argued that the Catholic Church does not distinguish between its specifically "spiritual" entities, such as churches, and its affiliated "secular" organizations, such as charities or hospitals. But the appeals court said that the exemption "applies equally to all religions and was not intended to burden any Catholic organization." Scotland added that the contraceptive coverage law is constitutional because "it is rational and religiously neutral," following a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that "laws interfering with religious practices were constitutional if they were not intended to be discriminatory and applied equally to everyone" (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3).
James Sweeney, who represented Catholic Charities in the case, criticized the court's decision. "I am disappointed and seriously troubled by the court's opinion in this case. This substantially burdens the religious freedom rights of the Catholic Church in California," he said (Los Angeles Times, 7/3). "The state has required the Catholic Church to implement conduct among its employees that our Catholic faith tells us objectively is sinful," he added (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/3). But women's groups praised the decision, calling it a step toward health coverage equity for men and women. Katherine Kneer, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, said, "The court said California has an interest in protecting the rights of women seeking reproductive health services in their health insurance coverage" (Sebastian, Contra Costa Times, 7/3). Margaret Crosby of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which helped defend the state law in court, added, "This is an important victory for women's equality and reproductive freedom. Workers should not have their contraceptive decisions made by their employers -- unless they are priests." Sweeney said that Catholic Charities is considering appealing the decision (Los Angeles Times, 7/3).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.