Women's Health: Religiously Affiliated Charities Must Comply with WCEA Requirements to Offer Birth Control Insurance Coverage-Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. V. Superior Court of Sacramento County1

By LeComte, Theresa | American Journal of Law & Medicine, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Women's Health: Religiously Affiliated Charities Must Comply with WCEA Requirements to Offer Birth Control Insurance Coverage-Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. V. Superior Court of Sacramento County1


LeComte, Theresa, American Journal of Law & Medicine


Women's Health: Religiously Affiliated Chanties Must Comply With WCEA Requirements To Offer Birth Control Insurance Coverage-Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court of Sacramento County1-The Supreme Court of California held that the Women's Contraception Equity Act ("WCEA") does not violate the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the U.S. and California Constitutions.2 In 1999, the California legislature enacted the WCEA to eliminate gender discrimination in healthcare benefits. Evidence had shown that women spent a great deal more on healthcare costs during their reproductive years than did their male counterparts. In addition, about 10% of California's commercially insured did not have coverage for prescription contraceptives. The WCEA requires that certain health care plans that include prescription drugs must cover prescription contraceptives. In passing the WCEA, the legislature asserted that the purpose of the law was to reduce discrimination in healthcare benefits. Catholic Charities of Sacramento ("Catholic Charities"), a church-affiliated employer, challenged the constitutionality of the WCEA.

In particular, Catholic Charities took issue with the WCEA's exception for religious employers. In order for a group to meet the definition of a "religious employer" under section 1367.25 of the California Health and Safety Code, it must meet four criteria: "(A) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the entity[;] (B) The entity primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the entity[;] (C) The entity serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity[; and] (D) The entity is a nonprofit organization . . . ."3 Catholic Charities acknowledged that it did not meet any of these criteria.4 However, the organization asserted that the WCEA was unconstitutional because it interfered with the autonomy of the religious organization, burdened the right to free exercise, and that the WCEA would fail both strict scrutiny and rational basis tests.5

The court first analyzed the assertion that the WCEA interfered with Catholic Charities' religious autonomy. It has been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court that courts must accept decisions made by the highest church judicatories regarding questions of discipline, faith, ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.6 In light of these holdings, Catholic Charities claimed that the WCEA interfered with matters of internal church governance. The court however, determined that the legislature had not decided any religious question in enacting the WCEA.7 Since no religious question had been decided by the legislature, this argument failed.8

Catholic Charities also made the argument that the WCEA burdened the right to free exercise of religion.9 Specifically, Catholic Charities argued that the WCEA effectively coerced a violation of religious beliefs.10 Regarding this matter, the California Supreme Court considered the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith.11 The California Supreme Court deferred to Smith's general rule that "religious beliefs do not excuse compliance with otherwise valid laws regulating matters the state is free to regulate."12 The Smith standard removes the need for a law to be justified by compelling governmental interest if it is "neutral and of general applicability," even when "the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice. …

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