California Supreme Court: "Secular purpose" of Catholic Charities means it must provide birth control despite church objections
A word of warning: Engage in social ministry without discrimination and you may be giving up your religious rights. That's the basic message of yesterday's California Supreme Court ruling, which said that Catholic Charities is not a religious employer and therefore isn't exempt from a state law requiring businesses to pay for employees' contraception. Catholic Charities isn't religious, the court said, because it employs and offers social services to people of all faiths and doesn't directly evangelize.

"This is such a crabbed and restrictive view of religion that it would define the ministry of Jesus Christ as a secular activity," wrote Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the sole dissenter to the 6-1 ruling. "Here we are dealing with 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. This is precisely the sort of behavior that has been condemned in every other context."

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, writing for the majority (PDF | DOC), said that Catholic Charities is "free to express its disapproval of prescription contraceptives and to encourage its employees not to use them," but must pay contraception costs for those who disagree with the organization's teachings.

"This case does not implicate internal church governance; it implicates the relationship between a nonprofit public benefit corporation and its employees, most of whom do not belong to the Catholic Church," Werdegar wrote. "Only those who join a church impliedly consent to its religious governance on matters of faith and discipline."

But surely the employer has rights, too, says Christian Medical Association Executive Director David Stevens. "Faith-based organizations must retain the freedom to follow religious and ethical beliefs in matters regarding issues such as birth control," he says in a press release. "The key issue here 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."

Stevens says it's a huge win for those who don't want to see religious organizations partner with the government in providing social services: "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 loses religious and conscience freedoms. The hypocrisy is stunning--but not surprising, given abortion activists' drive to force their political agenda on everyone who disagrees with their views."

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The California Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic Charities in the case, says it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This case was never about contraceptives. It was never about insurance. It was about our ability to practice our religion—providing food, clothing and shelter to the neediest among us—as a religious organization which is part of the Catholic Church," executive director Ned Dolejsi says in a press release.

It would be good for the Supreme Court to hear this case, since it's not just a California issue. "Versions of the law considered in Monday's ruling have been adopted in the 20 states after lawmakers concluded private employee prescription plans without contraceptive benefits discriminated against women," notes the Associated Press.

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Gay marriage and politics:

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  • Sex warfare breaks out in US election | As the race hots up, gay weddings have triggered a bitter battle between liberals and the powerful morality lobby (The Observer, London)

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