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October 5, 2004
SCOTUS Rejects Catholic Charities Appeal

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Catholic Charities of a California law that requires them to supply contraception for its employees as part of its health insurance plan, the Los Angeles Times reports today:

The contraception case asked the justices to reconsider what laws violate the "free exercise of religion" protected by the 1st Amendment. The lawyers for the Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento faced an uphill fight because of a 1990 ruling written by Justice Antonin Scalia. In that ruling, he said state laws could not be challenged on freedom of religion grounds if they applied equally to everyone and did not target a religion for unfair treatment.

The California Legislature passed a women's rights measure that required employers to pay for "approved prescription contraceptive methods" as part of their health insurance plans. While the law excluded churches from the mandatory coverage, it did not exclude all groups affiliated with a religion.

The state mandate was challenged by Catholic Charities of Sacramento, a nonprofit corporation sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. Three-fourths of its employees are not Catholics. In March, the state Supreme Court upheld the law on a 6-1 vote, citing Scalia's opinion. In their appeal, Catholic Charities' lawyers said the contraceptive rule amounted to "an unprecedented intrusion upon the religious freedom." But the justices rejected the appeal in Catholic Charities vs. California.

I originally wrote about this in March, when Catholic Charities lost their appeal at the California Supreme Court. The law made no exemption for religious institutions, and Catholic Charities is a part of the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches against contraception as a sin in all but the most extreme cases. They are an non-profit organization that does not discriminate in their hiring practices and do tremendous outreach to the community all over the world -- both of which counted against them when their case was reviewed by California's high court:

The Supreme Court ruled that the charity is not a religious employer because it offers such secular services as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to the public without directly preaching about Catholic values.

The court also noted that the charity employs workers of differing religions.

In California's backwards world, which the Supreme Court just endorsed, hiring in a non-discriminatory manner and serving the entire community without proselytizing requires Catholics to give up their right to religious freedom. And make no mistake -- that's exactly what just happened. Whether you agree with the Roman Catholic position or not, they believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and that contraception even within marriage outside of a few extreme circumstances represents an erosion of a sacrament from God. Forcing them to supply contraception when it goes against Catholic doctrine requires them literally to be anathematic towards themselves.

What will the organization do in response? According to the various court decisions, here are their options:

* Terminate all non-Catholic employees
* Refuse to offer any health insurance to its employees
* Stop performing community outreach
* Close its doors

The Scalia test in this instance doesn't protect the rights of non-profit religious organizations. You can say that a state law requiring everyone to wear a cross applies equally to everyone and doesn't target any one religion for unfair treatment, and that still represents an offense to non-Christians. Requiring everyone to support contraception just because the law applies equally is no different.

The rationale behind these decisions appear to be the 14th Amendment, which insists on equal application of the law, but the 14th Amendment did not revoke the First Amendment. These decisions infringe on the right of Catholics to determine their conduct and their religious expression, regardless of what the dominant culture thinks of it. It implies that religious organizations must apply for recognition of their status. Moreover, this precedent will eventually allow the state to demand other actions of religious organizations, such as recognition of gay marriage and equal-access policies for hiring of priests, that directly contradict what the churches teach, for right or wrong.

The California legislature should refine their law in order to allow Catholic Charities to continue to operate within their conscience, serve their communities, and still provide basic health care to their employees. The perversion of regulation that occurred here will only result in a reduction of good works for all, no matter which option the Catholic Charities selects.

UPDATE: Mona is correct in the comments; the Roman Catholic Church considers artificial birth control a "grave" sin under all circumstances:

Ignoring the mountain of evidence, some maintain that the Church considers the use of contraception a matter for each married couple to decide according to their "individual conscience." Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of artificial birth control are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching is definitive and irreformable. It cannot be changed and has been proclaimed by the Church infallibly.

There is no way to deny the fact that the Churchs ordinary magisterium (cf. Vatican IIs document Lumen Gentium 25) has always and everywhere condemned artificial contraception. The matter has already been infallibly decided. The so-called "individual conscience" argument amounts to "individual disobedience."

I shall commence putting that in my pipe and smoking it. I had not realized its complete status. For those who want to know more about Catholic doctrine and teaching, Catholic Answers is an excellent resource, especially when you want to find answers to a specific issue quickly.

To answer another issue raised in the comments -- and by the way, the discussion occurring there is a great example of why I enable comments on this site -- the issue is not the free exercise of choice for CC's employees. CC does not require its non-Catholic employees to swear off birth control (or even its Catholic employees). As pointed out by others, the issue is government forcing Catholic Charities to pay for birth control for others.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 5, 2004 6:22 AM

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I'd pretty much expected the courts to rule against Catholic Charities of California, and say that they must provide contraception in their health care plan if they offer one to employees, per a state law which does not exclude CC,... [Read More]

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