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California can't force churches to cover abortions in healthcare plans, court rules

California state capitol building
California state capitol building in Sacramento, California. |

A federal judge has struck down a California mandate challenged by churches requiring employers to cover abortions in their private health insurance plans amid a yearslong legal battle. 

On Wednesday, Judge Kimberly Muller of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled in favor of Foothill Church, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills and Shepherd of the Hills Church.

The churches sued over a 2014 California Department of Managed Health Care policy requiring the removal of "any limitations on or exclusions of abortion services from the health care coverage [insurance companies] offered to various employers, including [the] plaintiffs."

The legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom represented the plaintiffs and touted the ruling as a victory for religious employers.

"The government can't force a church or any other religious employer to violate their faith and conscience by participating in funding abortion," ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus asserted in a statement reacting to the ruling.

"For years, California has unconstitutionally targeted faith-based organizations, so we're pleased the court has found this mandate unconstitutional and will allow the churches we represent to operate freely according to their religious beliefs."

Letters sent by the DMHC informed seven private health insurers that the agency had "erroneously approved or did not object to" language in their healthcare plans that the state believed "may discriminate against women by limiting or excluding coverage for terminations of pregnancies."

They characterized "[e]xclusions and limitations on abortion" as "incompatible with both the California Reproductive Privacy Act and multiple California judicial decisions" establishing a right to abortion.

The DMHC ordered the health insurers to "amend current health plan documents to remove discriminatory coverage exclusions and limitations" or "omit any mention of coverage for abortion services in health plan documents, as abortion is a basic health care service." The agency emphasized that complying with the policy required health insurance plans to "treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally."

The plaintiff churches objected to the new policy, citing concerns that it would violate their religious beliefs establishing that "life begins at conception." While the churches initially contacted their health insurance providers to request religious exemptions, the insurance companies informed them that the California Department of Managed Health Care's letter laying out the new policy did not include religious exemptions.

Although the DMHC later approved another organization's request for a religious exemption, the plaintiff churches filed a lawsuit citing the mandate as a violation of their rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed at the district court level although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the lower court to rehear the case in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

ADF filed a motion earlier this year asking the court to issue a summary judgment in favor of the churches, citing the Fulton decision's finding that "a law burdening religious exercise must satisfy strict scrutiny if it gives government officials discretion to grant individualized exemptions." ADF lawyers contend that the DMHC mandate for abortion coverage did not live up to that level of scrutiny.

As explained in both the ADF motion and Muller's opinion, "Summary judgment is appropriate if 'there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'"

Muller, an Obama appointee, agreed with ADF's legal analysis asserting that the DMHC mandate violated the churches' rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and failed to measure up to the "most rigorous of scrutiny."

"In sum, the Director [of the DMHC] has not shown '[she] lacks other means of achieving [her] desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by [plaintiffs]," Muller wrote. "The Director's denial of the Churches' request for exceptions to accommodate their religious beliefs, based solely on the fact that those requests did not originate with a plan, was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest."

Muller also dismissed the churches' claim that the mandate violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

As both ADF and Muller noted, abortion provider Planned Parenthood played an instrumental role in crafting the DMHC mandate for abortion coverage. ADF obtained emails documenting Planned Parenthood's involvement in the development of the policy.

Expressing concern that "Catholic Universities have been purchasing large, group employee health plans that exclude certain types of abortions," Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California Legislative Associate Brianna Pittman asked California's Department of Health and Human Services "whether there is a regulatory/ administrative fix" for what she viewed as a major problem.

In a subsequent email, Pittman indicated a meeting occurred between California HHS officials and pro-abortion advocacy groups before requesting that the DMHC decline to "approve any further plans that exclude coverage for abortion or other reproductive health care service." She also sought "a clarification that there is no such thing as an elective or voluntary abortion exclusion," adding, "Simply saying that plans only need to cover 'medically necessary' abortions has been the source of the issue and does not solve the problem."

Emails obtained by ADF also reveal that following a meeting with Planned Parenthood officials, California HHS began "working with DMHC" to create an "updated" interpretation of California state law regarding abortion, culminating in the new policy.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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