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Courts shouldn't set church employees' benefits

Robert A. Sirico

People of faith may no longer define their scope of activity in the culture. That was the message sent by the California Supreme Court on March 1 when it ruled that Catholic Charities must include access to contraception as part of employee health benefits.

Catholic Charities objected and pointed out that providing contraceptives was contrary to official church teaching. Its policy, of course, does not preclude workers from buying birth control at their own expense.

But the California court said Catholic Charities, by employing non-Catholics and doing what the secular world considers social work, is engaged in secular activities, and its religious objections should have no bearing in its claim to be exempt from the state's law requiring employers from providing full benefits.

There are many disturbing aspects to this case, but the presumption that the state can so neatly delineate secular and religious activity is especially troubling — and more so since the state now claims that charity is secular. It may be argued that Christianity institutionalized and internationalized charity. Christians have been engaged in social work since the Apostolic age: rescuing abandoned children, caring for widows, healing the sick and doing so always on the basis of non-discrimination.

After the collapse of the old Roman Empire, it was the Catholic Church that provided the only social safety net that could be found in the first millennium A.D. In our own country, the Catholic Church, along with many Protestant denominations, was the main provider of charity throughout the 19th century. The government didn't get seriously involved in social welfare provision until the New Deal and after. And now look: The state is questioning the right of the Catholic Church — and, by implication, all religions — to offer services on its own terms because the state claims that charity is a secular activity.

The grounds on which the court makes this claim are curious. Because Catholic Charities isn't constantly trying to convert the immigrants it helps, or steer its counseling patients toward the confessional, or prodding the people who live in low-income housing to get themselves to church on time, the court said it is engaged in secular activity. And yet for many years, criticism has been running in the other direction. Religious groups have been attacked for mixing doctrine with charity.

Thus we can see that from point of view of the state, the church is damned if it teaches its faith and damned if it doesn't. The court also cited Catholic Charities' policy of employing non-Catholics as the basis for regarding its functions as being essentially nonreligious. But imagine if Catholic Charities had a strict policy of never hiring anyone but practicing Catholics. Just think what the courts would have to say about that.

The one dissenting vote in the California Supreme Court opinion was voiced by Janice Rogers Brown. She said the court's decision was "an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization's expression of its religious tenets and sense of mission." She has been nominated by President George W. Bush to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals. But the Democrats refuse to let it go ahead on grounds that she is a conservative. Call her what you want, but her opinion here is nothing more than the conclusion one draws from the looking at the facts.

Government intrusion is one of the great dangers associated with the faith-based initiative, currently favored by many Republicans. They envision a welfare state that freely contracts with secular and religious agencies. But if taking the government's money is going to mean surrendering the right to protect doctrine, faith and morals, religious charities are far better off staying small and maintaining their integrity.

This ruling is but one sign of a larger problem: a growing secularization brought about by the expansion of the state into spheres previously dominated by independent, mediating institutions. The California court ruling should be reversed and might well be. But the warning shot has been fired. Religious charities might think of the state as their benefactor but, as with the serpent in the garden, too much cooperation can exact a very high price.


Rev. Robert A. Sirico. "Courts shouldn't set church employees' benefits." Detroit News (March 20, 2004).

Reprinted with permission of the author Rev. Robert A. Sirico.


Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Father Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. He is the author of A Moral Basis for Liberty, Catholicism’s Developing Social Teaching, and Environmentalism and its Spiritual Implications among others.

Copyright © 2004 Detroit News



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved