Ninth Circuit favors Washington church in case against state abortion coverage mandate

Appeals court Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock

A Washington church won its case against a state abortion coverage mandate on Thursday, in a ruling by a federal appeals court.

Cedar Park Church in Bothell, Washington had filed a complaint in March 2019 regarding a state law that required employers – including churches – to cover abortions if their health plans also included maternity coverage. While state law allowed religious groups not to pay for abortion coverage, it required it to be available to enrollees; the church argued that it could not find a health plan without abortion coverage included.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that the church had “sufficient” cause to claim an injury in the case, and that injury was “fairly traceable to SB 6219,” the state abortion coverage mandate.

“No church should be forced to cover abortions, and certainly not a church like Cedar Park that dedicates its ministry to protecting and celebrating life,” said Elissa Graves, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) which represented Cedar Park Church in the case.

“We are pleased the 9th Circuit rightly recognized the harm that Washington state has inflicted on Cedar Park Church in subjecting it to this unprecedented mandate,” Graves stated.

The state law SB 6219, signed into law in 2018, required health plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices; in addition, health plans covering maternity services also had to include “substantially equivalent coverage” of abortions.

While state law allows religious groups not to purchase abortion coverage, it has to be available for all enrollees. 

The church in 2019 had sued over the abortion coverage mandate, stating its "deeply held religious belief that abortion is the ending of a human life, and is a grave sin.” It opposed providing coverage for abortions or abortifacients in employee health plans. 

The church said that following enactment of the 2018 mandate, its health insurer Kaiser Permanente included surgical abortion coverage in the church’s health plan. Kaiser supposedly indicated that it would remove the coverage if a court ruled in favor of the church’s religious exemption to the mandate.

Cedar Park Church said it could not find another employee health plan without abortion coverage, following Kaiser’s changes made to its plan. In its lawsuit, it alleged violations of its free exercise of religion and the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as well as violations of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Washington state argued that the church was not required to pay for the abortion coverage, and thus had not suffered an injury sufficient for standing in court.

In August 2019, a federal district court granted the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and denied the church’s motion for a preliminary injunction from the law.

On Thursday, the Ninth Circuit that the district court erred in dismissing the case, and sent the case back to the lower court.

“Washington state has no legal authority to force places of worship to fund abortions and violate their constitutional rights, as well as their religious beliefs,” said John Bursch, ADF senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy, on Thursday.

“Today’s decision is a big step forward in preventing the government from targeting churches and we look forward to continue challenging this law at the district court,” he said.

The state’s Catholic bishops opposed the abortion coverage mandate when it passed the legislature in March 2018.

In a March 5, 2018 letter to Gov. Jay Inslee (D) asking him to veto the bill, the bishops said it violated human dignity and infringed on conscience rights.

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“Even those who do not share our unconditional commitment to the dignity of every person from the moment of conception, have good reason to support our right to exercise our conscience in accord with the teachings of our faith,” the bishops said.

They warned the law would “place religious employers and others at legal risk simply for following their religious or moral beliefs and exercising the fundamental right of conscience constitutionally guaranteed to all Americans.” the bishops wrote.

California enacted an abortion coverage mandate in 2014, which applied to a group of Catholic consecrated women, the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit. The group filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services, which ruled in 2020 that the state violated federal conscience law in the case.

The federal Weldon Amendment prohibits federal funding of state and local governments that discriminate against individuals or groups that refuse to perform, pay for, or cover abortions.

California’s former attorney general Xavier Becerra refused to comply with the HHS notice of violation in the case in 2020. Becerra is now the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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