"Political grandstanding should never interfere with that," he added.
Becerra's letter objected that the notice contradicts a 2016 determination that California was in compliance with the Weldon Amendment, despite complaints from groups like the California Catholic Conference. The attorney general argued that the latest notice "dramatically reinterprets" the amendment and threatens to cut federal funding for vital state programs.
Becerra's letter to Severino did not mention either the Missionary Guadalupanas or Skyline Wesleyan Church whose legal complaints prompted the HHS action.
For his part, Severino said the Department of Health and Human Services will take appropriate action in response.
"For decades Californians could choose whether or not they wanted abortion-free health insurance coverage until California took away that option," Severino told CNA Feb. 24.
"HHS is assessing the recent letter from the California Attorney General and all appropriate remedies in light of California's continued refusal to comply with federal law."
Becerra's letter echoed the arguments behind the state's 2014 rule change. California Supreme Court precedent, and California constitutional provisions require protections for "women's right to privacy and reproductive freedom." California legislation requires health plans to offer abortion services as part of "basic health care services."
Only one provider had requested an exemption, he said, and this exemption was granted. This was proof the state was willing to comply with the Weldon Amendment.
Federal action he said, threatens programs like emergency preparedness, infectious disease programs and child welfare programs.
The attorney general requested all evidence related to the Notice of Violation so that California could have a "full and fair opportunity" to refute it. His letter objected that "corrective action" was not specified.
California officials mandated the coverage after two Catholic universities in autumn 2013 announced that they planned to stop paying for employees' elective abortions and had secured state approval for the new health plans.
Lobbyists from Planned Parenthood wrote to the California Department of Health and Human Services to insist that agency rules be changed to force religious groups to provide coverage for elective abortions, according to emails published in court filings from the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group.
(Story continues below)
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When the Obama administration rejected complaints from groups like the California Catholic Conference, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the ruling was "contrary to the plain meaning of the law." They said it was "shocking" that the federal government allowed California to force all employers, including churches, to fund and facilitate elective abortions.
Now the controversy includes the Guadalupanas, who work closely with farm workers and with immigrants.
"They're wonderful women," Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Feb. 18. "They just didn't understand why their conscience rights were being ignored, so they took action for themselves and others."
Eckery said that the California Catholic Conference is "pleased" that federal action has been taken, but he stressed the need to seek a resolution and to reject partisan political interpretation of objections to the state rule.
"We're not out to start or continue a culture war. We're just out to make sure that the beliefs of people like the Guadalupanas are respected," he said.
"We're not seeking to cut off federal funds," he said. "All we're seeking is a respectful conversation, but one that is now clearly backed by the government which recognizes that this is a violation of conscience rights."