A Bad Faith Decision

By Nathan J. Diament

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Your local Jewish federation’s social welfare agency — whether providing counseling to battered women, vocational training to the disabled, care and comfort to the elderly or a host of other noble and needed services — is not, as a matter of law, a Jewish organization. At least, this is now the law in the state of California, whose Supreme Court issued a ruling earlier this month that may well serve as a precedent throughout the nation.

The case was not directly about a Jewish agency, but it might as well have been. It is Catholic Charities — the social welfare arm of the Catholic Church — that the court ruled is not a religious organization. In rendering this ruling, the court accepted the most extreme views set forth over the past three years by critics, including some Jewish community leaders, of President Bush’s “faith-based initiative.” Through its authority over America’s most populous state, the court threatens to undermine both religious liberty as well as a central pillar of this nation’s social welfare system.

The case arose because, at the urging of women’s rights advocates, California enacted a law to compel employers who provide health insurance to their employees to include women’s contraceptives within the services covered. At the urging of Catholic leaders in California, the legislature included a provision within the law permitting religious employers not to offer their employees “contraceptive methods… contrary to the religious employer’s religious tenets.”

Now, a reasonable person would expect that Catholic Charities of California, which, although separately incorporated, defines itself as “operated in connection with the… Catholic Bishop of Sacramento” and as an “organ of the Roman Catholic Church,” would be covered by the religious employers’ exemption of the statute and not have to provide contraceptive methods to its employees in light of the church’s well-known objection to this practice. A reasonable person, however, would be wrong.

The California statute defined “religious employer” so narrowly as to exclude Catholic Charities. For an entity to qualify, it must be a non-profit corporation that has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, primarily employs only people of the entity’s faith and serves primarily people of the entity’s faith. In other words, Catholic Charities — in its homeless shelters, job training programs, soup kitchens, AIDS hospices, child care centers and countless other agencies — must employ only Catholics to serve Catholics and seek to convert its non-Catholic beneficiaries into Catholics in order to qualify for the religious employers’ exemption.

Rather than striking down the statute’s narrow definition of a religious employer as an improper infringement upon Catholic Charities’ free exercise of religion, California’s Supreme Court upheld the law’s wording. In a fit of political and legal hypocrisy, this result was urged upon the court in legal briefs by some of the Jewish community’s leading organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, and others who have railed against President Bush’s faith-based initiative on the grounds that it would support faith-based social service organizations which would choose to employ and serve only those of their own faith. These critics of the president’s initiative would often cite Catholic Charities, with its inclusive employment and service practices, as the proper paradigm for a faith-related agency that was already successfully utilizing government grant funds for social welfare programs. Now, in order to conform to the California Supreme Court’s mandate and not violate its principles, Catholic Charities has little choice but to behave in ways these liberal groups have been decrying.

Aside from undermining the religious liberty of Catholic Charities and similar institutions of other faiths, the California ruling threatens America’s social safety net. Nationally, Catholic Charities alone spends more than $2.5 billion per year serving Americans in need — two-thirds of which comes from federal, state and local grants and contracts. Add to this equation the multi-billion-dollar annual activities of the Jewish federation system, Lutheran Social Services and hundreds of other faith-based social welfare agencies, and you now have a substantial percentage of America’s social welfare providers faced with the impossible choice having to triage their religious beliefs.

While Jewish federation agencies might not be conflicted like the Catholics over providing employees with contraceptive coverage, each faith group, in its own way, may be forced to choose between fulfilling one religious imperative — to serve those in need — and violating another. This is an impossible choice that must be remedied either by legislative action or by the federal courts.

Decades of U.S. Supreme Court precedents grounded in the First Amendment’s religion clauses argue for granting religious institutions the right to remain true to their faith’s teachings, and this principle should not be altered for those that engage in social service ministries, even with government support. The Jewish community should be the first to defend the religious autonomy for all faith communities, even those whose beliefs and practices might place them at odds with the prevailing political correctness of a given moment.

Finally, for those who wonder whether President Bush’s efforts to protect faith-based organizations’ religious rights were necessary, the California Supreme Court has confirmed that they are indeed. Being both faithful to God and serving your fellow man just don’t seem to get the same respect they once did, at least not in California.

Nathan J. Diament is the director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.