SAN FRANCISCO -- In a precedent-setting decision, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a Roman Catholic charity must offer birth-control coverage to its employees even though the church considers contraception a sin.
The 6-to-1 decision marked the first such ruling by a state's highest court. Specialists said the ruling could affect thousands of workers at Catholic hospitals and other church-backed institutions in California and prompt other states to fashion similar laws.
California is one of 20 states, including Massachusetts, to require that all company-provided health plans must include contraception coverage if the plans have prescription drug benefits.
The high court said that Catholic Charities is no different from other businesses in California, where "religious employers," such as churches, are exempt from the requirement. Catholic Charities argued that it, too, should be exempt.
In Massachusetts, diocesan employees are exempt, said Gerry D'Avolio, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.
In California, the state Supreme Court ruled that the charity is not a religious employer because it offers such secular services as counseling, low-income housing, and immigration services to people of all faiths, without directly preaching Catholic values.
Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote that a "significant majority" of the people served by the charity are not Catholic. The court also noted that the charity employs workers of differing religions.
The California Catholic Conference, which represents the church's policy position in the state, said it was disappointed with the ruling and feared it could open the door to mandated insurance coverage of abortion.
"It shows no respect to our religious organizations," said spokeswoman Carol Hogan.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the ruling and called it "a great victory for California women and reproductive freedom."
Justice Janice Rogers Brown was the lone dissenting judge. Brown wrote that the Legislature's definition of a "religious employer" is too limiting if it excludes faith-based nonprofit groups like Catholic Charities. President Bush in October nominated Brown to fill a vacancy on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. But Brown's appointment has been opposed by Senate Democrats who view her as a conservative activist who would limit abortion rights and oppose affirmative action.