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Land, others decry Calif. Ruling as attack on religious rights

WASHINGTON (BP)–Leaders of Christian ethics and medical organizations have decried a recent court decision requiring a Roman Catholic social services organization to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the decision “one more attack on the free exercise, religious rights of a Christian organization. A court is once again allowing legalized discrimination against such rights.”

California’s Women’s Contraception Equality Act (WCEA), according to the state Supreme Court’s 6-1 ruling, does not infringe upon the religious rights of Catholic Charities of Sacramento. The 1999 state law requires some health insurance plans that provide prescription drug coverage to cover prescription contraceptives.

Catholic Charities, which abides by the Catholic Church’s teaching that the use of artificial birth control is sinful, contended WCEA violates the free exercise of religion and church-state establishment clauses of both the United States and California constitutions. The lower courts ruled against the agency, and the state’s high court affirmed their opinions March 1.

Though WCEA has a religious exemption, the justices ruled Catholic Charities did not meet the requirements for a “religious employer.” The agency does not primarily service Catholics nor primarily employ Catholics, the justices said in citing reasons it did not qualify for the exemption. The law serves a compelling state interest of “eliminating gender discrimination” and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest, the court also said.

David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said the primary issue in the case “is not even the important question of the ethics of birth control but the fundamental freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience and of the teachings of one’s religious faith.”

“This case presents a picture of the Catch-22 that some would use to hamstring faith-based organizations,” Stevens said in a written release. “On one hand, they fight laws that would allow faith-based organizations to restrict hiring to those who follow its religious teachings. Then on the other hand, as soon as a faith-based organization hires others, they say it’s no longer a faith-based organization and loses religious and conscience freedoms. The hypocrisy is stunning –- but not surprising….”

The court’s lone dissenter, Janice Rogers Brown, called the law “an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization’s expression of its religious tenets and sense of mission. The government is not accidentally or incidentally interfering with religious practice; it is doing so willfully by making a judgment about what is or is not religious.”

The WCEA’s definition of a religious organization “is such a crabbed and constricted view of religion that it would define the ministry of Jesus Christ as a secular activity,” Brown said. President Bush has nominated Brown to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, but Senate Democrats have blocked a confirmation vote.

Catholic Charities USA, which describes itself as the “social service arm” of the Catholic Church, said in a written statement it was “dismayed by the court’s intrusion into the rights of a Catholic organization and find[s] it disturbing that a court can define a Catholic Charities agency as not being a religious organization.”

The Interfaith Alliance, meanwhile, welcomed the ruling.

“Yet another high court has joined the United States Supreme Court in reaffirming the constitutional guarantee of an institutional separation between religion and government in the United States,” TIA President C. Welton Gaddy said in a written release. “These rulings strongly suggest that the courts of this land will not allow President Bush to bypass them as he has bypassed Congress to advance his faith-based initiative. The Interfaith Alliance position has always been that organizations operating as religious institutions should not receive government funding.”

Bush’s faith-based initiative has been a major part of his domestic program. He has sought to expand the ability of faith-based organizations to use federal funds to provide social services.

While the president has been unable to get his faith-based initiative through Congress, he has used his power to issue orders to change executive branch policies. In 2002, Bush issued an executive order protecting the religious hiring rights of federally funded, faith-based groups. That executive order permits organizations to enter into contracts with the federal government while hiring employees in accordance with their beliefs and while maintaining their religious identity.

The White House revealed March 9 more than $1.1 billion in federal grants was given to faith-based groups during the 2003 fiscal year, The Washington Post reported. The grants made through all agencies were not revealed.

Among the five agencies disclosing their grants, the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development dominated in total amounts given to religious organizations performing social services. HHS made $568 million and HUD $532 million in competitive grants to faith-based groups, according to The Post.