Amid backlash from religious liberty and education advocates, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has ordered abortion coverage in health insurance plans for two Catholic universities.
“California Catholics are no longer safe to practice their faith within their own institutions. Gov. Brown's decision demonstrates that, in California, tolerance does not extend to people of faith and moral conscience,” David Luke, co-founder of Renew LMU, told CNA Aug. 26.
Luke's group aims for the renewal of Catholic identity at the Los Angeles-based Loyola Marymount University, from which he graduated in 1993.
He said that Gov. Brown and his administration has given the university leadership “a unique opportunity to prove that being a Catholic institution still means something.”
Brown, he noted, “has given them an opportunity to stand in defense of innocent human life and religious freedom. I hope they take advantage of that opportunity.”
Luke's comments follow California government officials' scrutiny of health care plans designed to remove some abortion coverage from health plans that Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University provide to their employees.
On Friday, Michelle Rouillard, director of California's Department of Managed Health Care announced that health plans that restricted abortion coverage were illegal under state law.
Her Aug. 22 letter to health care companies active in the state instructed them to cover abortion on the grounds that it is “a basic health care service.” She said that some contracts “limiting or excluding coverage for termination of pregnancies” may illegally discriminate against women.
Under California's Knox-Keene Health Care Service Plan Act of 1975 and judicial rulings applying the California state Constitution, Rouillard's letter said, “all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.” The letter instructed health care companies to remove “discriminatory coverage exclusions and limitations,” including those that limit coverage to “therapeutic” or “medically necessary” abortions.
The department's action, however, could face legal challenges.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal religious liberty advocacy group, co-authored with the Life Legal Defense Foundation a letter to the California department objecting to the action. The two groups said that the action is a “clear violation” of the federal Weldon Amendment, which bars states that accept federal funds from discriminating against institutions and health care entities that do not provide coverage of abortion or refer for abortions.
The California government department “cannot deny approval to or otherwise penalize a health insurance plan for failing to provide coverage of some or all abortions,” said the letter, which was written on behalf of the Cardinal Newman Society.
“When Congress enacted the Weldon Amendment, it sought to ensure that the government could never strong-arm pro-life employers into paying for abortion coverage; therefore, California’s decision is illegal,” Matthew Bowman, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, said Aug. 22.
“No state can ignore federal law in a pursuit to conform everyone to the state’s own ideology on abortion,” Bowman added. “Faith-based organizations should be free to operate according to the faith they espouse and live out on a daily basis.”
The letter threatened to file complaints with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Peter Warren, an assistant director of communications at Loyola Marymount University, told CNA Aug. 25 that the university is waiting to hear from its insurance companies on how the decision affects the university.
Deepa Arora, communications director at Santa Clara University, said Aug. 25 that the university has reached out to its insurers.
“We will confer with them to ensure that our health plans continue to be fully compliant with state and federal law,” Arora said.
A fight for Catholic identity
Christopher Kaczor, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount, told CNA/EWTN News Aug. 19 that California government officials’ scrutiny of abortion coverage in health plans are hindering Catholic colleges’ ability to be consistently Catholic.
“A Catholic university, if it is to retain its identity, must be distinctive in its fidelity to fundamental truths.”
Kaczor cited the Society of Jesus’ 2003 document “Standing for the Unborn,” saying that “the defense of human life prior to birth is a justice issue.”
He said Loyola Marymount, a Jesuit university, “should not, in any way, facilitate abortion.”
In fall 2013 both Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara announced that they planned to stop paying for employees’ elective abortions, the Associated Press reports. They said their insurers, Anthem Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente, had secured approval from state officials.
In an October 2013 letter, Santa Clara University president Father Michael E. Engh, S.J., said that the Catholic university’s “core commitments” are incompatible with abortion coverage.
State officials revisited their decision following agitation from pro-abortion rights faculty and staff at the universities, as well as activism from pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Santa Clara University faculty voiced their rejection of the changes to the health care plan by a vote of 215 to 89 in December, the California Lawyer magazine reports. Before the policy was revised, Santa Clara’s abortion coverage also applied to dependents of faculty and staff.
The universities' revised health plans still offer supplemental coverage for abortion through a third party.
Kaczor said that Loyola Marymount’s health coverage change is a “significant, meaningful improvement” over the previous policy that covered elective abortion. He said university president David Burcham’s initial proposed policy was “a wonderful affirmation of our Jesuit character.”
However, he said the change actually implemented by the university’s board of trustees was not as strong because it still cooperated in the provision of abortion.
Luke, of Renew LMU, agreed that the university’s current policy still makes it “morally complicit” in the procurement of abortion.
He said it was “not clear” that Loyola Marymount’s leadership “has the commitment to Catholic mission required to oppose an assault on religious freedom.”
He noted that the president of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles was invited to speak on campus despite the protests of concerned students, faculty, alumni and others.
Luke said that Loyola Marymount's Catholic mission and identity “have been in decline for years.” He charged that the university’s leadership “would rather bow to a loud, secular faculty majority than do the right thing.”
“The faculty who lobbied Governor Brown were not satisfied with the affordable abortion coverage provided by their Catholic employer,” Luke said. ”They will only be satisfied when their Catholic employer actively participates in the killing of the unborn.”
He encouraged prayer for the restoration of the university's Catholic character.