In California, Catholics are faced with a new rubric imposed by judicial fiat: Faith, henceforth, will be defined by the state. Religious freedoms will come with a big ol’ asterisk alongside them from now on, to be clarified only by a government-appointed interpreter of the law.
Hyperbole? On Monday the California Supreme Court determined by a 6-1 vote that Catholic Charities of Sacramento — a social-service agency — must provide contraceptives, outlawed by their faith, as part of its prescription-drug benefit for its employees.
The California state legislature passed a law in 2000 requiring prescription drug plans to cover contraceptives for female employees. Because women paid 68 percent more than men for out-of-pocket birth control prescriptions and were more likely to have to cover the costs of “unintended pregnancies,” legislators reasoned, any organization that failed to pay for contraceptives was practicing “gender discrimination.”
The legislature, however, did provide an exemption from the law for religious groups who believe that the use of artificial contraception is sinful. But strangely, despite the overt religious nature of the group’s work, the court ruled that Catholic Charities was not a religious organization because it hired non-Catholics and offered such “secular services” as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to people, regardless of their faith.
In other words, by following the tenets of their faith and taking seriously its charge to reach out to the neediest among us, Catholic Charities ceased to be a religious organization, and the protections such a designation bestowed vanished into thin air.
IN HER OPINION FOR the majority, Justice Kathryn Werdegar made it clear that the religious rights enshrined in the First Amendment were only valid insofar as they remained within the boundaries of “progressive” policy.
“The act conflicts with Catholic Charities’ religious beliefs only incidentally,” Werdegar wrote, “because those beliefs happen to make prescription contraceptives sinful.”
Werdegar’s message was well received by all the beautiful people, including those stalwart defenders of religious freedom over at the American Civil Liberties Union, who described the ruling as “a great victory for California women and reproductive freedom.”
Nevertheless, the court’s action left California Catholics at a loss.
“This case presents a picture of the Catch-22 that some would use to hamstring faith-based organizations,” Christian Medical Association Executive Director David Stevens, M.D. said. “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 a faith-based organizations hires others, they say it’s no longer a faith-based organization and it loses religious and conscience freedoms.”
All this to punish the Catholic Church, which, incidentally, happens to be the largest private provider of health care, social services and education in California. If anything, this ruling proves that even the slightest hint of a moral mooring has become anathema to progressive thinkers, no matter the good that the practice of those morals may introduce to the community.
As if to second the court’s obscenity, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer took a few minutes out of his busy schedule of ignoring the thousands of illegal gay marriages in San Francisco to announce that the court’s decision was a “huge victory for working women in California.”
JUSTICE JANICE ROGERS Brown’s eloquent sole dissent sounded like a sane cry from a forsaken land.
“By protecting religious groups from gratuitous state interference, we convey broad benefits on individuals and society,” Brown wrote. “By underestimating the transformative potential of religious organizations, we impoverish our political discourse and imperil the foundations of liberal democracy.”
Brown has been nominated by President Bush to fill a vacancy on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which often serves as a waiting room for nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly, the Feminist Majority, Senate Democrats and others are enthusiastically opposing (and blocking) her nomination, citing her “poor record on women’s rights and civil rights.”
But perhaps Democrats should change tactics and let her move on. Without Brown’s obstinacy, the California judicial system would be free to pursue its objectives with a united front.
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