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Church seeks limits on contraceptive law

Catholic Charities pursues exemption

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 that 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," said James Sweeney, lawyer for Catholic Charities of Sacramento.

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 Dec. 2.

Versions of the law have been adopted in 20 states after lawmakers concluded that 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.

"It certainly could be very persuasive on other courts," said Rebekah Diller, a New York Civil Liberties Union director who is following the California 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 US 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 Meg Hollaran, California deputy attorney general.

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 worshipers 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 last year and provided social services to persons of any religion or background. It does not demand that its workers are Catholic or share the church's philosophy.

The organization 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." A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union argued that siding with Catholic Charities 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.

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