Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, March 2, 2004


Page 1


High Court Upholds Drug Plan Contraceptive Coverage Requirement

Claim by Catholic Organization That Law Violates First Amendment Is Rejected


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


A state law requiring certain health insurance and disability plans that provide coverage for prescription drugs to pay for contraceptives does not violate the First Amendment rights of employers who provide employee health coverage but are religiously opposed to contraception, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

“We find no merit in the argument that the [Women’s Contraception Equity Act] discriminates against the Catholic Church,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the court.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices upheld lower court rulings in favor of the act. Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin, and Carlos Moreno joined Werdegar’s opinion, with Justice Joyce L. Kennard concurring separately and Justice Janice Rogers Brown dissenting.

Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc. had challenged the law as an establishment of religion and as a violation of its free exercise rights. While the act does not require any employer to offer prescription drug coverage, Catholic Charities argued that it was being forced to choose between its strong belief in providing health benefits to employees and its equally fervent opposition to contraception.

The act does exempt “religious employer[s],” but Catholic Charities did not qualify under the act’s definition. To be a religious employer, the entity’s purpose must be “the inculcation of religious values,” it must primarily employ and serve persons who share its religious tenets, and it must be a nonprofit organization as defined in the Internal Revenue Code.

Social Services Organization

Catholic Charities, a social service organization that employs and serves members of many religious faiths, conceded that it failed all four prongs of the statutory definition. But it questioned the constitutionality of the criteria, arguing that the Legislature had injected itself into an internal dispute among American Catholics over the propriety of contraception and entangled the state in religious matters.

Werdegar rejected those contentions.

“Certainly the WCEA conflicts with Catholic Charities’ religious beliefs, but this does not mean the Legislature has decided a religious question,” the justice wrote.

She cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings requiring religious organizations to pay federally mandated minimum wages and requiring an employer to pay Social Security and unemployment taxes that the employer insisted violated his religious beliefs.

Case Distinguished

Rejecting Catholic Charities’ free exercise arguments, Werdegar distinguished Larson v. Valente (1982) 456 U.S. 228. The court in that case struck down a Minnesota law regulating solicitations of funds by religious organizations that received 50 percent or more of their contributions from non-members, while other religious organizations were exempt.

The justices held that the law, which had the effect of regulating solicitations by the Unification Church while exempting more established churches, granted a religious preference that the First Amendment does not permit.

“In contrast,” Werdegar wrote yesterday, “the WCEA applies to religious and nonreligious organizations equally.”

The justice acknowledged that some Catholic employers would qualify for the “religious employer” exemption while others would not. But that distinction does not render the act unconstitutional, she concluded.

“The WCEA confers the special benefit of exemption only on those religious organizations whose tenets are opposed to prescription contraceptives and that meet the other requirements for exemption,” she explained. “This justifiable as a legislative accommodationóan effort to alleviate a governmentally imposed burden on religious exercise....Those Catholic employers that do not qualify for exemption are treated precisely the same as all other employers in the state, whether religious or nonreligious.  Thus, while the WCEA may treat some Catholic employers more favorably than other employers, the WCEA does not under any circumstance treat Catholic employers less favorably than any other employers.”

Kennard, in her separate concurrence, said she was troubled by the first criterion for the exemption—that an employer have as its purpose the inculcation of religious values. Allowing the state to decide whether an employer does or does not meet that test may violate the state or federal establishment clause, she said.

The issue need not be resolved, however, because Catholic Charities admittedly does not meet the other criteria, Kennard wrote.

Brown, dissenting, said the majority had given insufficient consideration to the right of the Catholic Church, and its affiliated entities, to propagate the church’s view that “sex within marriage [is] a unitive, procreative, and sacred reflection of a spiritual, emotional, and biological reality that comes complete with reproductive anxiety.”

The justice went on to say:

“A substantial amount of federal case law supports Catholic Charities’ claim that the Legislature’s attempt to draw distinctions between the religious and secular activities of a single religious entity is an impermissible government entanglement in religion. I am inclined to agree.”

The case is Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court (Department of Managed Care),  04 S.O.S. 1027.


Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company