Judge dismisses church's lawsuit challenging Washington law mandating abortion coverage

An activist holds a rosary while rallying against abortion in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015.
An activist holds a rosary while rallying against abortion in Los Angeles, California September 29, 2015. | REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

A federal judge has rejected a church’s argument that a Washington state law forcing faith-based organizations to cover elective abortions in their employee health plans violates the church’s religious freedom rights.

In a Tuesday ruling, Judge Benjamin Settle of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington sided with the state by determining that Senate Bill 6219 is “neutral” and that there is no evidence it was enacted to target any particular religion.

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the conservative legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Kirkland.

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Settle, appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush, disagreed with the church’s notion that the 2018 law requiring health insurance plans that offer maternity coverage to also “provide substantially equivalent abortion coverage” favored “secular conduct.”

He noted that it does not exempt non-religious organizations from the requirement regarding maternity care and abortion coverage while only forcing religious organizations to abide by it. 

“Because the Court concludes that SB 6219 is neutral and generally applicable, the law is valid if it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose,” the judge wrote. 

ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot is disappointed with the decision, saying in a statement to The Christian Post that the church teaches that life is worthy of protection from its earliest stage, which is conception.

“They live out this principle in and through their entire ministry — they partner with local pregnancy centers, host a camp for local children in foster care, host an annual service for couples struggling with infertility, and co-founded an adoption agency for frozen embryos remaining from in vitro fertilization,” Theriot told CP. 

“By forcing pro-life churches to cover abortions in their health insurance plans, the State of Washington is going against past U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have consistently held that government hostility against people of faith is unconstitutional and has no place in our society,” he continued. “No one should be forced by the government to pay for abortions. We are disappointed in the court’s ruling and will be considering our options for next steps.”

The lawsuit claims the law violates the church’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the lawsuit argues that the state worked with pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America to draft the legislation, which did not include exemptions for churches or religious organizations. 

“Washington’s attack on people of faith is intentional. It represents the kind of deliberate religious persecution that our country was founded to prevent. This Court should preliminarily and permanently enjoin SB 6219,” the suit stated. 

The district court dismissed the lawsuit in May 2020. But in 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the church had a right to sue the state, overturning the lower court’s ruling. 

“Cedar Park’s complaint plausibly alleged that, due to the enactment of SB 6219, its health insurer (Kaiser Permanente) stopped offering a plan with abortion coverage restrictions and Cedar Park could not procure comparable replacement coverage. This is sufficient to state an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to SB 6219,” the decision stated. 

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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