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One side called it a case about religious freedom. The other insisted it involved gender discrimination. And while the California Supreme Court debated both issues during oral arguments Tuesday, the justices gave no clear indication about how they will rule in a closely watched case that pits the Catholic Church against the state of California. In a separate paternity dispute, the high court seemed disturbed that a young Southern California girl’s biological father had not been declared her legal parent. But they appeared equally uneasy about reversing the lower court ruling because the biological father is incarcerated awaiting deportation for raping the girl’s mother. The court’s arguments in Santa Clara County Superior Court were part of a historic visit to San Jose. The court last sat in this city about 150 years ago, and Tuesday’s sessions were attended by high school students from Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. The hearings were also televised to classrooms over closed circuit and were shown live on local public TV. In the first case, Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc., a public benefit corporation that provides health and social services for the poor, disabled and elderly, challenged a state law that requires health care plans and disability insurers that cover prescription drugs for their employees to include coverage for contraceptives. Catholic Charities objected, saying it goes against age-old teachings of the Catholic Church, which explicitly say that artificial contraceptives are morally unacceptable and sinful. That, the organization’s lawyer, James Sweeney, told the court Tuesday, violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as well as the religious freedom clause in the state Constitution. There’s an exception for “religious employers,” but it doesn’t extend to groups like Catholic Charities, which employs and serves non-Catholics and doesn’t attempt to inculcate religious values. The state, Sweeney said, is telling the church that feeding the poor, tending to the sick and caring for the young is not part of its core mission and faith. “The government gets into the business of what’s religious or what isn’t,” the partner at Sacramento’s Sweeney & Grant argued. “The state is imposing its judgment on the church about what it considers ministry.” Sacramento-based Deputy Attorney General Timothy Muscat, meanwhile, argued that the law — the Women’s Contraception Equity Act of 1999 — was not aimed at the Catholic Church’s teachings, but rather at trying to end discrimination against women in the provision of prescription services. Reports and statistics have proved, he said, that insurers and health care providers were routinely denying women access to contraceptives, thereby undermining their health and economic well being. “The target was not religion or faith,” Muscat argued. “It was the 40-year history of discrimination.” Justices Janice Rogers Brown and Joyce Kennard, however, thought there were holes in the state’s argument, noting that the only option the state gives groups like Catholic Charities is to obey the law or stop providing health care services. “How do we promote health,” Brown asked, “when this provides an incentive for not providing prescription coverage?” Added Kennard: “Have you really given any thought that it will have a terrible effect on women? They would be put at a disadvantage.” Justice Carlos Moreno seemed to side with the state, though, when he asked whether Catholic Charities couldn’t comply with the law by simply offering a “cafeteria plan” by which its employees could choose from a variety of health care programs, including those that offer contraceptives. “Why is that not a viable remedy?” Justice Ming Chin said later. “Doesn’t that just give the employee a pot of money to use as he pleases?” Sweeney said that would accomplish nothing. The church, he said, would still be in the position of funding something it considers immoral. The case is Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc. v. Superior Court (California Department of Managed Health Care), S099822. The other case argued Tuesday could go a long way toward clarifying what courts mean by the term “presumed father.” In In re Jesusa V., S106843, two men claimed paternity over a 2-year-old girl. She had been fathered by Heriberto O.C. of Long Beach, but she had been taken into the home and long cared for by Paul B., an Army sergeant in San Diego who had lived with the child’s mother for several years and already was an acting father for five of the girl’s siblings. Both men were declared presumed fathers under state Family Codes, but a Los Angeles County trial judge — after comparing Paul’s stable home life with the biological father’s — declared Paul the legal parent. On Tuesday, Tustin lawyer John Dodd, who represented Heriberto O.C., told the high court that biological connections should trump all other factors in determining a presumed father. And he argued that the determination about who would be the better parent should never come into play. “Courts should not get into the business of choosing parents based on who’s the best,” Dodd argued. “It’s a dangerous road to go down.” But the other road held little appeal for Justice Marvin Baxter and Chief Justice Ronald George, who pointed out that the biological father pleaded no contest to raping the girl’s mother and now sits in a cell awaiting deportation. “Do you disregard all these things?” George asked. “Isn’t that a crucial component in determining what’s in the best interests of a child?” Still, the biological link of Heriberto O.C. wasn’t ignored, with most justices finding it a relevant factor. “Biology is important, isn’t it?” Baxter asked Deputy Los Angeles County Counsel Lois Timnick. “In other words, the court’s not going to close its eyes to the person who is the actual father of the child. Is that not right?” Dodd had also argued that the biological father was denied due process rights by not being allowed to physically attend the dependency hearing at which Paul B. was declared the legal parent. He should have been allowed to attend, Dodd said, because the hearing effectively terminated his parenthood. Decisions in both cases are expected within 90 days.

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