Washington church fights to not cover abortion
Appeals court considers the state’s health insurance coverage mandate
A federal appeals court panel on Friday seemed receptive to a Washington church’s argument that state law should not force it to cover elective abortions in its health insurance plan.
Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Rory Gray told a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Cedar Park Assembly of God in Kirkland must be free to live out its conviction that life begins at conception. Gray argued the church had standing to sue because the Washington law provided no conscience objection, causing the church’s insurance company, Kaiser Permanente, to say it could not provide a plan that excluded abortion coverage.
“The fact of the matter is that [Washington] refused to carve out an exception for churches that believe that abortion is a sin,” ADF counsel Elissa Graves said. “[T]hey are trying to cover their tracks after the fact by saying they are requiring the insurers to do it, but the state is forcing churches to cover abortion.”
Cedar Park sued in March 2019 to challenge a 2018 state law that requires employee health plans to “provide a covered person with substantially equivalent coverage to permit the abortion of a pregnancy.” The law includes no exceptions, and church leaders could face fines and prison time for noncompliance. The church appealed after a district court’s dismissed the case in May 2020. That ruling is at odds with a 9th Circuit ruling just a week later that found San Diego-area Skyline Church could challenge a similar California mandate.
Washington state argued the church might be able to secure a plan with another carrier that excluded abortion coverage. Its attorneys also claimed that the insurance company, not the state, was forcing the church to cover abortion.
But Circuit Judge Richard Clifton, a George W. Bush appointee, seemed skeptical. “Now you may point your finger in different directions and say our fingerprints aren’t on the murder weapon because the shot was actually fired by somebody else, but the notion that there’s not a connection … seems to be a pretty hypothetical proposition where the state’s trying to wash its hands of the impact the statute was intended to and expected to have,” he said during virtual oral arguments.
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