Churches prevail in challenge to state abortion mandates
Federal appeals court sends cases back to trial courts for reconsideration
A Seattle-area church and three Southern California churches scored wins last week in challenges to state requirements that they offer elective abortions under their group health plans for employees.
On July 19, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resurrected a religious liberty challenge to California’s requirement that insurance companies cover abortion services in all health insurance policies. Foothill Church, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, and Shepherd of the Hills Church argued the requirement forced them to violate their beliefs on the sanctity of life.
The district court had dismissed the case in March 2019. But in a brief, unsigned opinion, the court sent the case back for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The justices found Philadelphia violated the First Amendment when it refused to contract with Catholic Social Services for foster care services unless the agency agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.
Judge Daniel Bress dissented, arguing sending the case back didn’t go far enough. He said the state’s authority to issue exemptions from the abortion coverage obligation meant the requirement had to meet the high “strict scrutiny” standard. “I am quite concerned that California has been giving the churches the run-around in an area where great sensitivity is warranted,” Bress wrote, describing the legal issue as “straightforward.”
On Thursday, a separate panel of the court also overruled a dismissal of Seattle-area Cedar Park Church’s challenge to a similar Washington state requirement. At oral arguments earlier this month, judges did not seem impressed with the state’s attempt to shift the blame to insurance companies who interpreted the law as requiring abortion coverage. In an unusually prompt unanimous opinion, the court ruled the district court was wrong to dismiss Cedar Park’s challenge and sent the case back for a second look.
The appeals court previously allowed Skyline Wesleyan Church near San Diego to pursue its lawsuit against California’s abortion coverage requirement. Skyline’s case remains pending.
Federal opposition to requirements like those of California and Washington has fizzled under the Biden administration. But constitutional questions outlive the change of administration, said Alliance Defending Freedom’s Elissa Graves, who represents Cedar Park Church: “It’s really clear that … it violates the First Amendment to force churches in any state to provide coverage for abortion.”
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