Court Flunks Tolerance Test
Debra J. Saunders
7/12/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
Where are all those people who have been hand-wringing over President Bush's proposal to give federal funds to faith-based charities when there is a real assault on the wall between church and state?
They say they oppose Plan Bush because it would bring down the wall separating church and state. But now that a California appellate court has ruled that a state law compels Catholic Charities to provide its employees with birth control as part of its prescription drug coverage -- even though the Catholic Church deems birth control to be inherently evil -- their cries of outrage about this sacred wall are nowhere to be heard.
Let me make it clear that I loathe the Catholic Church's pinhead policy on birth control, as it condemns children born to large families to even more misery and deprivation. May the church lose millions of believers for embracing this policy.
That said, the Catholic Church has a right to its beliefs, even offensive ones. It is not the place for state pols or courts to tell the church which policies are kosher.
Alas, the state legislature did so in 1999, when it passed a measure, signed by Gov. Gray Davis, requiring prescription drug plans to offer birth control. Catholic Charities lobbied for a "conscience clause" so that it would be exempt from the law. Instead, lawmakers granted a conscience exemption to organizations only if their purpose is proselytizing, and only if they mostly employ co-believers and serve co-believers.
The Archdiocese is exempt, but Catholic Charities doesn't qualify for the conscience clause. "They don't ask what your faith is. They don't demand that you listen to them about their faith. So they don't come under the definition (of an exempt organization), but what they do is profoundly religious," explained George Wesolek of the San Francisco Archdiocese's Office of Public Policy and Social Concern.
So because Catholic Charities serves non-Catholics, the legislature made it harder for the charity to qualify for a conscience exemption. And because Catholic Charities believes it must give its employees a good health package -- unlike a good many other state employers -- lawmakers have given Catholic Charities executives cause to regret its generosity.
Lawmakers couldn't find a better way to punish charitable behavior if they tried.
James Sweeney, Catholic Charities' attorney, believes that bill sponsors Sen. Jackie Speier and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (both Dems) purposefully wrote the law so that it would force Catholic Charities to act contrary to the church's birth-control doctrine.
Neither lawmaker's office responded to that charge by my deadline, but they would have to be blind to not see that they painted the charity into a corner. They put a group that wants nothing more than to help needy people in a repugnant position: Marginalize itself or secularize itself.
Catholics Charities can marginalize its usefulness by only helping Catholics -- which would allow Catholic Charities to be true to church doctrine. Or Catholic Charities can betray deeply held beliefs (or stop providing prescription drug coverage -- and let everyone lose out).
"What the state did was essentially to compel a religious organization to engage in conduct the religious organization earnestly believes is immoral as a matter of sincerely held religious belief," said Sweeney. "That had broad ramifications. You name the conduct. The state is in a position where if it doesn't like your particular viewpoint, it's going to force you to act contrary to your conscience."