Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

State Attempts to Define Religion: The Ramifications of Applying Mandatory Prescription Contraceptive Coverage Statutes to Religious Employers

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

State Attempts to Define Religion: The Ramifications of Applying Mandatory Prescription Contraceptive Coverage Statutes to Religious Employers

Article excerpt


There has been much attention given of late to the issue of whether the law should require private employers to cover prescription contraceptives under their health care plans. Although the exclusion of prescription contraceptive coverage by plans that offer coverage for other prescription medication was for many years not an issue that received attention, the decision by significant numbers of plans in the mid-1990s to cover Viagra made the failure of plans to cover prescription contraceptives a cause celebre of women's groups, who began to fight for such coverage. (1) As a result, at least twenty states have passed laws of various types requiring mandatory coverage of prescription contraceptives. (2)

For most employers, a requirement that contraceptive coverage be provided in plans that otherwise provide coverage for prescription medication is not a serious matter. Although for the most part employers are free to decide what benefits they will or will not provide to their employees, there have been other instances where state insurance law has imposed mandatory requirements on employers. (3) Moreover, unlike some of those other mandates, providing contraceptive coverage does not tend to increase the cost to an employer of providing prescription coverage. To the contrary, there is some evidence that medical costs in some plans that are amended to provide for contraception coverage actually decline due to a reduction in the costs of unintended pregnancies. (4)

However, for Catholic organizations, mandatory contraceptive coverage creates an issue of conscience. Because of the Catholic Church's strong moral objection to the use of birth control, (5) forcing organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church to provide prescription contraceptive coverage to their employees is anathema. The same is true of religions organizations affiliated with other religions having moral objections to the use of artificial means of contraception. (6)

Recognizing the conscience concern, many of the mandatory contraceptive coverage statutes have some carve-out for religious employers. (7) However, the exclusions in statutes adopted in several major states, such as New York (8) and California, (9) define religious employer very narrowly, with the idea of excluding from the operation of the statute Catholic churches themselves, but not arms of the Catholic Church such as Catholic Charities, or Catholic hospitals, universities or nursing homes. (10)

Because the application of mandatory contraception statutes to religious employers creates a major issue of conscience for the affected religious employers, religious groups in both states have challenged the laws as unconstitutional. Although there has not yet been a final ruling by the New York Court of Appeals on the issue, (11) on March 1, 2004, in Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. The Superior Court, (12) the California Supreme Court rejected the constitutional claims of Catholic Charities and held that it must provide its employees with prescription contraception coverage in accordance with the statutory mandate. (13)

The question of whether the law should so narrowly define what it means to be a religious employer is not a minor one. The number of workers employed by religious employers is extremely large. For example, in California, Catholic Charities of Sacramento has 1600 employees and Catholic hospitals in California employ 52,000 persons. (14) In New York, Catholic affiliated health organizations employ over 50,000 persons and provide health coverage for as many as 500,000. (15) In addition, the Church in New York operates 800 schools, 61 nursing homes and hundreds of social service agencies. (16) Nationwide, Catholic hospitals employ over 620,000 employees. (17)

This Article does not analyze the constitutional claims of the religious organizations. The ruling by the California Supreme Court comes as no great surprise given the Supreme Court's most recent statement on the subject of burdens on a religion's free exercise, (18) and one would expect the New York Court of Appeals ultimately to reach the same conclusion. …

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