Bitter Pill

Catholics and contraception.


The pope is, famously, not a big fan of Ortho Tri-Cyclen. But in the wake of a decision by the Supreme Court of California, Catholic Charities of California will have to cover contraception in its prescription drug insurance for employees. According to the 6-1 ruling, because it provides "secular" services, Catholic Charities doesn't count as a "religious employer" and therefore can't claim an exemption from the state law requiring employers to cover birth control.

While American Civil Liberties Union attorney Margaret Crosby, who filed a brief against the charity, hailed the decision as a "great victory for California women and for reproductive freedom," California Catholic Conference (CCC) spokeswoman Carol Hogan is, unsurprisingly, less sanguine. The CCC, which supported Catholic Charities in court, sees this putatively economic regulation as a clear violation of the religious liberties guaranteed under the federal and California constitutions.

As Hogan observes, it's difficult to square the ruling with a number of previous decisions in the state. In the past, the state high court has agreed that Catholic hospitals and health care organizations qualify as religious employers. And in 2003 a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the Boy Scouts of America is a religious organization, invalidating a preferential contract between the Scouts and the city of San Diego. "So the Boy Scouts are a religious institution," says Hogan, "but we aren't. It's hard to see any principle but politics at work there."

Yet the CCC also makes some inscrutable distinctions. On its Web site, it argues that instead of requiring Catholic Charities to cover the pill, "the least restrictive means possible would be for the state to provide the contraceptives to those women whose religious employer declined to offer them." The sacrament of taxation apparently grants absolution to the Catholics who would still, in the end, be picking up the tab.