San Francisco Chronicle, October 5, 2004
High Court Declines Religious
Dispute over Contraceptives
Catholic Charities challenged
law on drug coverage
A California law requiring employers who provide
prescription drug coverage to include birth
control for women remained intact Monday when
the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of Catholic
Charities' claim that it shouldn't have to
pay for practices it considers sinful.
The justices, without comment, turned aside an
appeal by Catholic Charities of Sacramento
from a decision in March by the California
Supreme Court. The state justices ruled that
the 4-year-old law was a valid anti-discrimination
measure that didn't interfere with religious
beliefs or practices.
The church-affiliated charity remains "free
to express its disapproval of prescription
contraceptives and to encourage its employees
not to use them" as long as it treats
male and female employees equally, the California
court said at the time.
Monday's decision was the first opportunity for
the nation's high court to review any of the
laws passed by 21 states that require employers
to include contraceptives in health plans that
cover prescription drugs. Another challenge
is pending in New York state courts.
The court action is "a huge victory for
working women who have suffered unfair and
unjust discrimination," said California
Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office
defended the law. "As the California courts
have consistently ruled, nonreligious employers
cannot discriminate against women in the workplace
based on their employers' religious beliefs."
He was referring to the law's narrow definition
of "religious" employers, who are
exempt from the contraception requirement.
The exemption applies to churches but not to
affiliated entities like Catholic Charities,
whose mission and clientele are secular.
Catholic Charities attorney Kevin Baine said
Monday's action was disappointing, but he predicted
the Supreme Court would eventually confront
the issue of "whether it violates a church
entity's religious freedom to subsidize conduct
it considers immoral."
"If the state of California can coerce Catholic
agencies to pay for contraceptives, it can
coerce them to pay for abortions," Baine
Catholic Charities, which has 1,600 employees
in the state, has been providing contraceptive
coverage during its appeals of the case. The
law also covers 52,000 employees of Catholic
hospitals in California.
Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese
of Sacramento, which oversees Catholic Charities,
said the diocese was studying the case to determine
whether it has any choices besides providing
contraceptives or eliminating drug coverage,
an option it considers unacceptable. The agency
will follow both the law and "the teachings
laid down by the church," he said.
The state laws were enacted after federal regulators
approved the male potency drug Viagra in 1996,
and it was quickly included in health insurance
plans that had denied coverage of birth control
pills for 40 years.
About half the health plans in the state excluded
female contraceptive coverage when the state
law was passed in 2000, forcing women of childbearing
age to pay 63 to 68 percent more for health
care than men, according to state officials.
The California law's exemption for religious
employers applies only to those whose mission,
employees and clients are primarily religious.
The exemption does not cover Catholic Charities,
which -- though it describes itself as an arm
of the church -- employs and serves mainly
In challenging the law, Catholic Charities argued
that the religious exemption was too narrow
and was motivated by bias against Catholic
agencies. The state's high court in March disagreed,
saying the exemption had been requested by
Catholic organizations and should not be considered
discriminatory merely because it could have
The sole dissenter from the March ruling, Justice
Janice Rogers Brown, said the state was "interfering
with religious practice ... by making a judgment
about what is or is not religious.".The
case is Catholic Charities of Sacramento vs.
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
<< San Francisco Chronicle -- 10/5/04
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