San Francisco If you don't believe in the law, do you have to follow it?
That's the question before courts in New York and California, which are being asked to exempt branches of the Catholic Church from state laws requiring contraceptives be included in employee prescription drug plans. Under church doctrine, contraception is a sin.
"The Catholic Church explicitly teaches that artificial contraception is morally unacceptable and, if knowingly and freely engaged in, sinful," Catholic Charities of Sacramento attorney James Sweeney said.
After California's law was enacted in 2000, the group unsuccessfully sought a court ruling to bar the law from being enforced on the church's charity outreach programs. A state appeals court also denied the church relief. Now the California Supreme Court is set to hear the case Tuesday.
Versions of the law have been adopted in 20 states after lawmakers concluded private employee prescription plans without contraceptive benefits discriminated against women. Lawyers closely following the debate said the only other legal challenge is in the lower courts of New York, before a judge of the Supreme Court of Albany County.
California's case is years ahead of the New York litigation, and civil rights groups, health care companies and Catholic organizations have filed extensive position papers with the court.
"It certainly could be very persuasive on other courts," said Rebekah Diller, a New York Civil Liberties Union director who is following the litigation.
At issue is a collision of the right of a religion to practice what it preaches and the newly acquired rights of thousands of women employed by church-affiliated groups to be insured for contraceptives.
Catholic Charities directly employs more than 1,000 workers in California and New York, but a ruling favoring the charity could also prevent more than 100,000 employees at 77 church-affiliated hospitals in California and New York from benefiting from the laws.
State regulators point to U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of a ban on polygamy, despite objections from Mormons, and against Native Americans who were denied unemployment insurance after being fired for using peyote during religious ceremonies.
"The church's claim that it is coerced into violating its religious beliefs by a state law requiring health insurance plans and disability policies to include prescription contraceptive coverage is nonsense," said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Meg Hollaran.
The two states note that churches are exempt from having to provide contraception coverage for employees who work inside parishes and houses of worship. That is known as the "religious employer exemption" because the parishes generally serve worshippers and employ those with similar religious views.
Several states have no such exemptions for religious entities. Other versions exempt church groups and "qualified church-controlled organizations."
Catholic Charities had a $76 million budget in California alone last year and provided social services to people of any religion or background. It does not demand that its workers are Catholic or share the church's philosophy.
The organization, however, says it is carrying out the work of Jesus, and by the law's definition, "Mother Teresa would be forced to offer contraceptives," said Carol Hogan, a spokeswoman for the California Catholic Conference.
Sweeney added that the law is "un-American and disturbing" because of its "disrespect of religious, moral views."
Sweeney pointed out that even the nation's military allows for the religious views of conscientious objectors by keeping them off the front lines, and that laws demanding certain traffic-safety markings on Amish horsecarts have been nullified because they treaded on the Amish lifestyle.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union argued that siding with the Catholics would, in essence, impose the church's doctrine on thousands of non-Catholic women who work at the church's hospitals or social-service agencies.
"Catholic Charities' noncompliance with California law would injure three fundamental rights of the people who work for the social services agency: gender equality, reproductive autonomy and religious freedom," attorney Margaret Crosby told California's high court in briefs.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists views the dispute as a health issue. Contraception gives women a chance to plan for a pregnancy, which the groups say makes for healthier mothers and babies.
"To ignore the health benefits of contraception is to say that the alternative of 12 to 15 pregnancies during a woman's lifetime is medically acceptable," said Catherine Hanson, the groups' attorney.