Calif. Mandates Contraception Coverage

SACRAMENTO, Calif.-Gov. Gray Davis has signed into law dual provisions making California the 10th state to mandate contraception as a part of any prescription-drug package offered to employees by their employers.

Under the Women's Contraceptive Equity Act, employers will have to fund contraceptive benefits for their employees even if they have legitimate faith-based objections to artificial birth control.

A similar bill passed in 1998 included a “conscience clause” exempting religious employers and their subsidiaries. But the new conscience provision excludes only those organizations whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values and who primarily serve persons of the same faith. Many believe this will force Catholic hospitals, charities and parochial schools to provide contraceptive coverage since inculcating values is not their primary purpose, nor do they primarily serve Catholics.

The California Catholic Conference, along with Republicans, were rebuffed when they tried to reach a compromise with the authors of the act, Sen. Jackie Speier and Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg. Davis, Speier and Hertzberg are Democrats.

During the debate leading up to the final vote on the bills in the Assembly, Hertzberg was asked why he opposed the stronger conscience clause he had favored just the year before. He gave no reason other than to say, “There has to be a nexus between employment and faith.”

Republicans said this proved proponents simply want to force Catholic entities to go against the teachings of their faith. Indeed, Assemblywoman Audie Bock, an Independent from Oakland, and Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, said the bills were needed because they would essentially force Catholic employers to provide contraception for their employees. They argued that, absent these bills, employers could “impose their morality” on employees.

Both bills passed with Catholics providing the margin of victory. Speier and 10 other Catholics in the state Senate, along with 14 Catholics in the Assembly, voted for the legislation to mandate contraception coverage. All are Democrats, though some Democrats voted against the bills and others abstained.

In a statement after the signing ceremony, bill sponsor Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California said, “Today common sense has prevailed. Women in California will now enter the new millennium free from the long-standing gender discrimination that currently exists in insurance prescription contraceptive benefits.”

Opponents agreed that this was about discrimination, but not the kind of discrimination those in favor of the law had in mind.

“It's the responsibility of the government to protect religious freedoms,” said Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, a Republican from Bakersfield and a Catholic. “And yet on this very issue, the authors and majority party were more interested in imposing their views on people who have deeply felt religious convictions to the contrary.”

The California Catholic Conference's executive director, Ned Dolejsi, agreed with this assessment. “It's naive to think that this is not their agenda,” he said. “They talk about us imposing our morality on employees, but if you work for Catholic Charities, were you not clear what Catholic Charities believed and stood for when you came to work for them? This is them imposing their moral agenda on us.”

Skip O'Neel is a free-lance writer living in Sacramento, California.