California to pay over $1M to churches that sued state over abortion coverage mandate

The California State Capitol in Sacramento. | Wikimedia Commons

California has agreed to pay more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees to four churches following two separate rulings determining that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects churches from having to fund abortion coverage in their healthcare plans.

The nonprofit legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which has represented several churches in litigation against the state of California over its abortion coverage mandate, announced in a statement Friday that state officials have agreed to pay $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees as part of the settlements in two separate lawsuits filed in federal court on behalf of four churches in the state. 

ADF’s announcement comes three days after California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, outlined the agreement reached between plaintiffs Foothill Church, Calvary Chapel of Chino Hills and Shepherd of the Hills Church and defendant Mary Watanabe, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care. As part of the agreement, Watanabe will pay the plaintiffs $500,000 in attorneys’ fees by June 30. $490,000 of that award will go to ADF attorneys, while $10,000 will go to local counsel. 

The agreement follows the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California’s Feb. 2 order granting a permanent injunction on behalf of the plaintiffs. Two days later, on Thursday, Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro of the U.S. District for the Southern District of California issued a ruling in favor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in a separate lawsuit.

Thursday’s ruling grants the request of Skyline Wesleyan Church for a permanent injunction declaring the abortion coverage mandate a violation of its rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in addition to ordering the DMHC to “consider requests and proposals from Plaintiff for abortion care coverage comporting with its religious beliefs, and to approve or provide feedback on the proposed coverage within 30 days.” Additionally, it requires defendant Watanabe to pay the plaintiff $900,000 in attorneys’ fees by June 30.

As was the case with the agreement involving the state and the other three churches, the state will pay the overwhelming majority of the attorneys’ fees ($850,000) to ADF attorneys. The remaining $50,000 will go to local counsel. 

ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus reacted favorably to the latest developments in the litigation. “The government can’t force a church or any other religious employer to violate their faith and conscience by participating in funding abortion,” he said. 

“For years, California officials, in collaboration with Planned Parenthood, have unconstitutionally targeted faith-based organizations,” Galus added. “This is a significant victory for the churches we represent, the conscience rights of their members, and other religious organizations that shouldn’t be ordered by the government to violate some of their deepest faith convictions.”

As Galus indicated in his remarks, the litigation on behalf of the plaintiff churches over the abortion-coverage mandate dates back several years. The DMHC first issued a requirement that employers pay for elective abortion services in employer-sponsored healthcare plans in 2014. Emails obtained by ADF attorneys revealed that the abortion-coverage mandate came in response to pressure from the state affiliate of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The ADF filed its first lawsuit against the abortion-coverage mandate on behalf of Foothill Church in 2015. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled in favor of the plaintiff churches last August, determining the requirement that employers pay for their employees’ abortions was unconstitutional. The second case, filed on behalf of Skyline Wesleyan Church and resolved last week, dates back to 2016.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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