Catholic Charities Must Include Birth Control Coverage, Says Court

The California Supreme Court has ruled that Catholic Charities must include birth control coverage in its health-care plans.

California law requires employers to cover birth control prescriptions if other prescription drugs are covered. Religious groups that have a moral objection to artificial contraception are exempt. Ruling 6-1, the state high court said Catholic Charities does not meet the statutory definition of a religious employer.

The court noted that Catholic Charities offers mostly secular services, does not preach Catholic doctrine, serves mostly non-Catholics and hires non-Catholics.

Officials at Catholic Charities had argued that the law amounts to intrusive state meddling in religious matters. The court majority rejected that claim.

"This case does not implicate internal church governance; it implicates the relationship between a nonprofit public benefit corporation and its employees, most of whom do not belong to the Catholic Church," wrote Justice Joyce Werdegar for the majority. "Only those who join a church impliedly consent to its governance on matters of faith and discipline."

The majority opinion did not discuss taxpayer funding of Catholic Charities. But according to the state affiliate's 2002-2003 annual report, the organization received 50 percent of its budget from the state, local and federal governments. The church provided only 8 percent.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Janice Rogers Brown accused the majority of infringing on the church's rights.

President George W. Bush has nominated Brown to a seat on a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia circuit, but Senate Democrats have blocked confirmation, arguing that she is a far-right judicial activist.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn applauded the California court decision. AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Catholic Charities of Sacramento v. Superior Court of the State of California case, asserting that the state law does not interfere with church autonomy and does not excessively entangle religion and government. The legislature, AU argued, acted within its constitutional authority to protect the rights of all citizens, including the employees of certain religious groups, to have access to broadly based medical care.

In a similar case from the other side of the country, a federal court has ruled that a Portland, Maine, ordinance requiring city contractors to provide "domestic partner" benefits is constitutional. Catholic Charities of Maine had sued, asserting that the law violated its religious liberty rights.

The ruling was not a complete win for the city, however. The court ruled that Catholic Charities' health-care plan is covered by a federal law that allows employers to limit benefits. This provision, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled, cannot be altered by state or municipal officials. But the ruling allows the city to mandate other benefits not covered by federal law as a condition of receiving federal aid administered through the city, such as bereavement leave, that could affect gay and unmarried heterosexual couples.