Ninth Circuit revives church's lawsuit against Calif. abortion insurance mandate

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A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has revived a California church’s lawsuit against a state law mandating insurance coverage for abortion.

Skyline Wesleyan Church of La Mesa sued the California Department of Managed Health Care over letters from 2014 stating that insurance companies could not limit abortion coverage.

Previously, a district court had ruled against Skyline Wesleyan Church of La Mesa in its lawsuit over a state mandate on abortion coverage, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction and the issue remained hypothetical.

The panel vacated the earlier district court ruling in a unanimous decision released Wednesday, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland authored the panel's opinion, concluding that “Skyline has suffered an injury in fact.”

“Before the Letters were sent, Skyline had insurance that excluded abortion coverage in a way that was consistent with its religious beliefs,” Friedland wrote.

“After the Letters were sent, Skyline did not have that coverage, and it has presented evidence that its new coverage violated its religious beliefs. There is nothing hypothetical about the situation.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative law firm that represented the church before the Ninth Circuit, celebrated the panel's decision.

“The agency has unconstitutionally targeted religious organizations, repeatedly collaborated with pro-abortion advocates, and failed to follow the appropriate administrative procedures to implement its abortion-coverage requirement,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus.

“The 9th Circuit rightly recognized the harm that the state has inflicted on Skyline Church in subjecting it to this unprecedented mandate.”

In August 2014, the  California Department of Managed Health Care sent an official letter to major insurance providers stating that insurance companies in California could not restrict abortion coverage.

"The purpose of this letter is to remind plans that the Knox-Keene Health Care Service Plan Act of 1975 (Knox Keene Act) requires the provision of basic healthcare services," the letter stated.

"… [T]he California Constitution prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy. Thus, all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally."

The announcement led to multiple churches filing legal action against the California Department of Managed Health Care, arguing that the mandate violated their religious objections to abortion.

In January, the Trump administration warned California that it will revoke federal funding over its requirement that all health insurance plans in the state cover abortion.

The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights warned that California “cannot impose universal abortion coverage mandates on health insurance plans and issuers in violation of federal conscience laws.”

The Office for Civil Rights concluded that the mandate violated the Weldon Amendment, which bans government agencies from requiring healthcare providers to pay for or refer patients for abortions.

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