Will the Winner Please Stand Up

by Gail Quinn

March 12, 2004

California passed a law in 1999 called the Women's Contraception Equity Act (WCEA). Under the law, employers that provide employees with insurance for prescription drugs were told they must cover prescription contraceptives.

Catholic Charities sought an exemption based on its religious beliefs. On March 1, the Supreme Court of California ruled against Catholic Charities.

How could this happen? Isn't religious freedom a bedrock of our American way of life? How can the State force a religious organization to pay for contraceptives when doing so directly violates its religious beliefs?

And for what? And who benefits?

I've long had my own theory of "for what." Those who promote contraceptive mandates likely do not have such coverage as their goal. If Catholic employers can be forced now to pay for contraceptives, how long before some try to force them to cover — or perform — abortions?

Under the California law, religious employers can be exempted from having to cover "contraceptive methods that are contrary" to their religious tenets. So what's going on?

Well, in its WCEA law, the state of California decided it would define "religious employer" extremely narrowly — as an employer which (1) has as its primary goal the teaching of religious values, (2) employs primarily people who share its religious beliefs, (3) serves primarily those who share its religious beliefs, and (4) is a non-profit organization as specified under a particular section of the IRS Code. The California Supreme Court said that Catholic Charities doesn't meet any of the State-described criteria.

In dissenting from the Court's decision, Justice Janice Brown noted that this is such "a crabbed and constricted view of religion that it would define the ministry of Jesus Christ as a secular activity."

The purpose of WCEA is reportedly "not to facilitate access to contraceptives but to eliminate a form of gender discrimination in the provision of health benefits." Such an argument is, one presumes, based on the notion that prescription contraceptives are a boon to women's health. But fertility is normal and healthy; taking high doses of artificial hormones to disrupt fertility is increasingly shown to be unhealthy. Cannot a religious or even secular employer fairly draw the line between drugs required for health and lifestyle drugs?

Brown also notes that Catholic Charities can avoid the mandate by dropping prescription drug coverage for all its employees. But "if religiously affiliated employers are serious about their objections," said Brown, "women who work for those employers could actually be worse off."

So who wins? Not Catholic Charities, whose religious beliefs preclude paying for contraception, and which also wants to provide drug benefits to employees and their families. If prescription coverage is dropped, not a single Catholic Charities employee wins. Each one of them would, in fact, be worse off.

I'd very much like to know who benefits from this State effort to force religious institutions to violate their religious beliefs. So, will the real winner please stand up?

Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.