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When a Catholic Institution Is Told to Pay for Contraception

SACRAMENTO, California, MARCH 24, 2004 (Zenit) - In an unprecedented decision that could affect hundreds of Catholic institutions, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that Catholic Charities must include contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees.

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference , shared how the ruling will affect Catholic organizations, what Catholic Charities might do next, and why he thinks that the court shirked its responsibility in its decision.

Q: What could this ruling mean for other Church organizations, especially Catholic hospitals?

Dolejsi: The Catholic Charities case is the first time anyone can find in legal research where a state has compelled a religious entity to actually fund something to which its has a moral objection. I think it is important to emphasize that there were and are ways for society to accomplish its goals without infringing on the religious freedom of others. Such a compromise was worked out prior to the passage of this law and could be revisited again.

To date, other religious organizations have already been affected by similar rulings. Beginning January 1, 2000, unless an institution met the very narrow definition of a religious organization, it could not purchase prescription drug coverage that did not contain contraceptives in its formulary.

A "religious employer" is defined as an entity for which each of the following is true: The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the entity; the entity primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the entity; the entity serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity; and the entity is a nonprofit organization according to certain state and federal tax codes.

That means Catholic social services, Catholic health care and Catholic institutions of higher education were defined as "secular" and subject to the contraceptive mandate.

The bishops, realizing the enormity of this breach of religious freedom, supported Catholic Charities of Sacramento Incorporated as the plaintiff in the effort to get the Women's Contraceptive Equity Act [WCEA] enjoined.

Since 2000, those impacted Catholic institutions have continued to offer their employees prescription-drug coverage.

In a few cases, the insurance company was willing to practice "civil disobedience" and provide a contraceptive-free drug plan. In most cases, the Catholic institutions, unwilling to drop all coverage for pharmaceuticals, have provided the mandated plan with the caveat that it was "under duress."

Q: Some commentators have noted that Catholic Charities does not demand that its workers are Catholic or share the Church's beliefs, and that if the organization had a more religious character it would have had a much greater chance of winning the case. Wouldn't it be better for a Catholic organization to retain a specifically religious nature -- otherwise, how is it different from any other philanthropic group?

Dolejsi: Catholic social services, health care and higher education apply for and receive federal and state funds that are used to enhance their mission of serving those who are in need. Catholic institutions have been pleased to partner with the government in this manner.

Catholic social and health care institutions have never limited their services or job opportunities to Catholics, nor have they made the reason for their existence to "inculcate" the faith.

In fact, they would not be able to access those government funds -- which have a huge multiplier effect in serving the wider community -- if they turned inward in order to meet the California Legislature's definition of a religious organization.

In addition, historically, government has contracted with Catholic institutions that can more efficiently and more compassionately deliver the needed services.

Up until the passage of the WCEA, "conscience clauses" were respectfully and readily available for conflicts between government policy and religious teaching, that is, for performing abortions in Catholic hospitals and for covering contraceptives, in vitro fertilization and sterilization in employee health plans.

Q: How will this court decision affect similar cases in other states?

Dolejsi: Laws similar to the WCEA have been passed in about 20 states. The New York law, virtually identical to California's mandate, has been challenged by the Catholic bishops in their state courts.

It is important to note that these laws were the result of concerted effort on the part of various women's groups and, in particular, the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, ...

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