California Judge Refuses to Throw Out Lawsuit From Church Objecting to Paying for Abortions

At the same time, the Obama administration's federal HHS Office of Civil Rights turned down a complaint from the churches about the requirement.

Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Wesleyan Church

By Rachel Alexander Published on June 22, 2016

A federal district court judge in California is allowing a church’s lawsuit against the state over an abortion funding requirement to proceed. But that was only one of two decisions bearing on the case issued two days apart, and the other was not favorable to pro-life interests.

Skyline Wesleyan Church had filed a lawsuit against the state, asserting that a stage agency’s new interpretation of California law would violate both federal and state law by requiring the church to provide insurance coverage for elective abortions. The California Department of Managed Healthcare responded by requesting the court dismiss the case, but Judge Marilyn Huff disagreed in an opinion issued on June 20.

In Skyline Wesleyan Church v. California Department of Managed Health Care, the CDMH claimed that abortion is a “basic right” and therefore all insurance plans had to include it. To do otherwise would constitute discrimination prohibited by the California Constitution. The church objected that the requirement violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as its rights under the California state constitution. The church also objected that the agency had not followed state law by issuing the order without required public notice and comment.

Planned Parenthood and the ACLU had aggressively sought the new interpretation, in response to Catholic universities in California dropping abortion coverage from their health insurance. According to Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said the the CDMH acted “t the behest of organizations such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood,” which used their political power to coerce organizations they disagreed with.

In her decision, Huff granted part of the CDMH’s appeal, by rejecting the church’s claims that its Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated, but let the rest stand. However, the church can reassert that claim by amending the argument and filing it again. The church has one month to respond and the CDMH thirty days after that to respond to the church.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jeremiah Galus, who is representing the church, praised the decision. “Californians shouldn’t be forced to choose between following their deepest convictions and submitting to unlawful, unjust government mandates,” he said.

The California mandate leaves churches with no legal way at all to opt out of paying for abortions. The Department of Managed Health Care unconstitutionally forced abortion coverage into churches’ health insurance plans without their knowledge or approval, and the agency didn’t even follow the appropriate administrative procedures to institute this mandate. The court was right to deny the state’s attempt to escape accountability for its actions.

Win one, lose one

The news for organizations opposed to abortion and for religious liberty was only half-good, however. In 2014, seven California churches, along with the California Conference of Catholic Bishops and Loyola Marymount University, had challenged the agency’s interpretation by filing a complaint with the federal HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint alleged that the agency’s ruling violated the federal Weldon Amendment, an annual appropriations rider that prohibits discrimination against health care entities that refuse to provide coverage for abortion. 

OCR dismissed the complaint on June 22, stating, “OCR found no violation of the Weldon Amendment and is closing this matter without further action.” Quoting Congressman Weldon himself at length, the agency’s head Jocelyn Samuels said the amendment applies to insurance companies, not to employers that have a moral objection to abortion.

The ACLU cheered the dismissal. The group’s legislative counsel said that the decision “affirms what has always been true, that safe and legal abortion is basic health care that all women should be able to access without interference.  The religious beliefs of others must not be used to restrict women’s access to constitutionally protected care.”

In contrast, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) criticized the decision, noting that the Weldon Amendment has been renewed every year and signed by President Obama, but his administration “has again shown blatant disregard for the rule of law. This decision illustrates the far reaches of Obama’s radical pro-abortion ideology — forcing churches and communities of faith that have pro-life convictions to participate in and pay for a practice that dismembers and chemically poisons unborn children.”

Smith called Congress to “take this issue out of the hands of the Obama Administration by moving enforcement of current conscience protections to the courts. Congress needs to enact legislation so churches and other victims have a ‘private right of action’ so they can have their day in court.”

Casey Mattox, senior counsel for the Life Legal Defense Foundation, condemned the decision as cherrypicking. “The Obama Administration’s refusal to enforce this law continues its pattern of enforcing laws it wants to enforce, refusing to enforce others, and inventing new interpretations of others out of whole cloth.”

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