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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

The State of California vs. the Catholic Church

March 02, 2002|THOMAS J. CURRY | Thomas J. Curry is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in charge of the Santa Barbara region and author of "Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America" (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Religious liberty is under attack by the state of California. It is using the Women's Contraception Equity Act, now before the California Supreme Court, to justify its attempt to gain control over religion and churches.

The law requires employers who provide prescription drug coverage to include contraception coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Though it provides for exemptions for some religious groups, granting these exemptions would require the government and courts to decide religious matters. Catholic Charities, which had sued to stop the state from enforcing the 1999 law, argues that the law would force it to violate the teaching of the Catholic Church. Two lower courts have ruled against the church.

The state says that Catholic Charities, one of the church's main charitable arms, is a secular rather than a religious organization. While religious organizations always have been subject to legitimate secular legislation, for the state to claim that it will define what are religious organizations represents a new and dangerous claim to power.

The state presents an even bolder argument: that the purpose of Catholic Charities is not to inculcate "religious values." If accepted, this argument would make the government the definer of religious teaching and values.

The state also argues that for Catholic Charities to qualify for an exemption, it must hire mostly Catholics and must limit its outreach for the most part to Catholics. If the state wins this case, the government will have the right to define which employees of Catholic Charities are Catholic. Will courts examine workers' religious beliefs? Will judges or state officials count baptized Catholics or only practicing Catholics? And who will determine what constitutes "practicing"? Will poor people seeking help from Catholic Charities have to produce baptismal certificates as a proof of eligibility?

The Women's Contraception Act punishes churches whose service to the poor involves no religious requirement. In attempting to define religion and to confine it within narrow sectarian boundaries, California is in effect establishing religion.

The state argues that the law's intent is to promote fairness and the rights of women. But no right should be advanced by sacrificing one of the most fundamental and treasured of all our freedoms, that of religious liberty and the independence of churches.

If California wins this case, it will be empowered to define what is or is not a religious organization. It will have the authority to determine religious values and to adjudicate church membership. In that event, not only will the Catholic Church lose but so will all other churches and so will the right to religious freedom.

Yes, the Catholic position on contraception is controversial. Yes, many Californians are opposed to it. It would be tragic, however, if this opposition is allowed to obscure an attack by the state of California on the shared American treasure of religious liberty.

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