Calif. court says Catholic Charities health plan must offer birth control

March 02, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO - Catholic Charities must include contraceptives in its employee prescription drug coverage, even though the church believes birth control is sinful, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 6-1 ruling came in a case that has been watched around the country as a contest between advocates of making contraceptives widely available to women and religious groups that have sought broad exemptions based on their faiths.

California is one of 20 states that require employers offering prescription drug benefits to also provide contraceptive coverage. While Maryland requires similar coverage, it also provides an exemption for religious organizations "if the required coverage conflicts with the religious organization's bona fide religious beliefs and practices."

California's law, passed in 1999, exempts churches. Catholic Charities argued that as an arm of the Roman Catholic Church, it should be exempt as well.

The justices rejected that claim in a ruling that is expected to affect other religious employers, including hospitals and colleges, and influence courts in other states.

The law did not affect "internal church governance" Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the majority. Rather, it affected "a nonprofit public benefit corporation and its employees, many of whom do not belong to the Catholic Church."

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said the church felt "disappointment and sadness."

Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

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