Catholic Charities Fights California Court Ruling on Contraceptives

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - A Catholic charity group is fighting a California law that mandates it provide contraceptive coverage as part of its employee health package.

Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. is appealing a lower state court ruling that said it must adhere to a state law requiring all California employers with prescription coverage to include FDA-approved contraceptives in their insurance policies.

"Catholic Charities of Sacramento is claiming infringement of [its] religious liberty rights guaranteed in both the California and the U.S. Constitutions, because they are not exempt from two newly enacted state laws that mandate all insurance policies issued in California, which include coverage for pharmaceuticals, must also cover contraceptive drugs and devices," the California Catholic Conference said in a statement.

"It is illicit for Catholic Charities, as a part of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Sacramento, to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees, and it is immoral to deprive their employees of pharmaceutical benefits in order to avoid the conflict," the statement said.

The charity also worries that the "Women's Contraception Equity Act," as the law is known, has a hidden intent of de-Catholicizing its mission.

"We refer to it as 'religious gerrymandering,'" Catholic Charities' attorney James F. Sweeney said. "When the state starts religiously gerrymandering a church, I think that's the danger.

"What the state has essentially done is redefine the Catholic Church, and refashion it in the state's own image, so as to regulate those parts of the Church [that] it doesn't like," he said. "There is a popular movement in the political culture to establish secularism as a state religion, and this is certainly a manifestation of such an effort."

The law does not contain an exemption for all of the aspects of the Catholic Church, according to Sweeney, because the law decides, "what parts of the Catholic Church were religious, and what parts were secular, and imposed the regulation upon the 'secular' part of the church and exempted the 'religious.'"

"That is a clear violation of the establishment clause," he said. "The Supreme Court of the United States is clear that the establishment clause prevents government from determining which activities of a religious organization are secular and which activities are religious for purposes of imposing regulation."

Sweeney argues that the legislature's delineation between the secular and religious parts of the Catholic Church is "erroneous" because the charitable institutions of Catholicism are an important part of the Church.

"Catholic Charities is the ministry of charity of the Catholic Church, and Catholic Charities is an extremely important Catholic Church institution," he said. "The gospel expressly puts out a call to serve the poor, feed the hungry and clothe the naked ... Catholic Charities is the part of the Church that renders that service."

Sweeney dismisses arguments made by Catholic Charities' opponents that the majority of the charity's workers are non-Catholics and consequently Catholic Charities needs to provide contraceptive coverage to all of its employees.

"That argument is totally irrelevant," he said. "Whom you employ is irrelevant, we may employ non-Catholics to work at Catholic Charities, in fact we do ... it doesn't matter whether the person who is ladling the soup out is a faithful Catholic."

What is important, Sweeney said, "is that the Church, acting as Jesus' hands and feet in world, is feeding the poor." He added, "The assumption that the demographics of your workforce determine the Catholic nature of your organization is ridiculous."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU), which filed a friend of the court brief against Catholic Charities, claims its "religious rights do not trump its employees' health [and therefore] neither free exercise or establishment clause principles support Catholic Charities' noncompliance with California's important health policy."

The ACLU does not accept Catholic Charities' arguments that it should be exempted from the contraception law for religious reasons.

"California's contraceptive equity law is not unusual in drawing a line between spiritual and secular aspects of a religious organization. Many labor laws have narrowly-defined ministerial exemptions, which distinguish [between] core liturgical officials [and] the staffs of hospitals, schools, and charities," the ACLU brief said.

"This legislative line-drawing reflects the unremarkable constitutional principle that a religious organization's relationship with the government differs, depending on whether it conducts spiritual care to its congregation or furnishes secular services to the public," the brief added.

"Catholic Charities is the paradigm of a secular organization that is not exempt from state labor policy," the brief said. "It is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, which receives substantial government funds. Catholic Charities serves people of all faiths and people who adhere to no faith in California, in California's pluralistic population."

"[It] ... cannot establish that the Contraception Equity Act objectively imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of its religion [because Catholic Charities behavior has not always been in agreement with Catholic theology]," the ACLU maintained.

The lower court ruling against Catholic Charities exposes the dangers of funding religious organizations with public money, according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU).

"This illustrates the dangers of a religious group becoming a government contractor," said AU spokesman Rob Boston. "Various types of rules and regulations can be applied that may conflict with the religious group's central tenets, and core mission.

"Religious organizations have to understand that government money comes with strings attached," he said. "[They also] need to be aware that taking government money is going to open them up to litigation and demands that they follow laws that other secular government contractors are obliged to follow."

Boston added, "The answer to that is [not] to take any government funding [so] you don't have to worry about it."

The involved parties estimate that the California Supreme Court will hear the case on a yet to be determined date sometime next year.