This fall, California's Supreme Court will hear arguments in a high-profile case that will determine whether religious ministries must pay for contraception for their employees, even if such payments contravene their religious principles. The Women's Contraception Equity Act is the focus of the appeal.

The law mandates that any firm providing health insurance in California cover contraception expenses. Catholic Charities of Sacramento sued to gain exemption from the contraception provision and won. But a state appeals court ruled against the group in July 2001, triggering an appeal to the state high court.

Catholic Charities says paying for contraception violates Roman Catholic teaching against the use of artificial birth control. The California act exempts churches and some Christian ministries. It does not, however, exempt organizations (such as Catholic Charities) that work with the broader public and do not use religious criteria in hiring workers.

"This [law] punishes charities [that] are trying to do a good work because they don't toe the line with Planned Parenthood," said Wendy Wright, a senior policy director at Concerned Women for America in Washington, D.C. "You could be shut out of business."

Alan Brownstein, a constitutional expert and law professor at the University of California, Davis, sees potential for the court to set a bad precedent. "In this particular case, we're dealing with contraception," he says. "If Catholic Charities loses, the next [state] regulation that interferes with an autonomous religious institution could have a different mandate. There is no shortage of state regulations that could impinge."

Supporting the state's view, the American Civil Liberties Union's Margaret Crosby argued in an amicus brief that the contraception-benefits law "is not unusual in drawing a line between spiritual and secular aspects of a religious organization."

"Workers should not have their contraceptive decisions made by their employers," Crosby says, "unless they are priests."

The contraception law has a controversial past. Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed it three times in the 1990s. His successor, Democrat Gray Davis, signed the measure in 1999.

"We're really talking about the right to define religion narrowly in order to deny Catholic Charities their religious freedom," says Alan J. Reinach, public affairs and religious liberty director for the Pacific Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. "If the state wins, then religion's wings have been severely clipped, and we're free to talk to ourselves and minister to ourselves, but we have no freedom to serve the public in Christ's name."

Related Elsewhere

Articles on the case include:

The State of California vs. the Catholic Church—Los Angeles Times (March 3, 2002)
Birth-control benefits law upheld in appellate courtSan Francisco Chronicle (July 3, 2001)
Catholic Charities must cover prescription contraceptives, rules California court—The Associated Press (July 3, 2001)
Catholic leaders file suit over contraceptive coverage lawKaiser Daily Health Reproductive Report (August 22, 2000)
Catholic clerics fight law on contraceptionSan Francisco Chronicle (August 19, 2000)

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