The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled partially in favor of a Seattle church on July 22, explaining that a lower court should not have thrown out the church’s lawsuit regarding a Washington law forcing it to fund abortions.

The ruling states that Cedar Park Assembly of God suffered injury when the church could not find comparable replacement coverage after its health insurer stopped offering a plan with abortion coverage restrictions due to Senate Bill 6219. However, the Court also ruled that the district court was correct in throwing out Cedar Park’s claim that they had suffered a denial of equal treatment under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

SB 6219 was signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and made effective in June 2018. This law requires that health plans issued or renewed after Jan. 1, 2019, must “provide a covered person with substantially equivalent coverage to permit the abortion of a pregnancy” if they include maternity care or services.

The law makes no stipulations regarding churches or other organizations that may be morally opposed to abortion. Because there was no protection for churches, this meant that churches that refused to cover elective abortions with their maternity care coverage could “face fines and criminal penalties, including imprisonment,” according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, who represent Pastor Jay Smith and Cedar Park Church in court. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Hobbs, explained that he did not see a need to write religious exemptions into the bill, and if employers had a problem with it, they can sue.

And that’s exactly what Cedar Park Church did.

Following the passing of this law, Cedar Park’s insurance carrier, Kaiser Permanente, inserted surgical abortion coverage into the Cedar Park health plan. It later told the church that it would only remove the coverage if a court were to show that they would not violate state law. In response, Cedar Park sued in March 2019, but a district court dismissed the case. The church then appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently ruled that the church had plausibly alleged an injury as a result of SB 6219 that was sufficient to move the case forward.

While the 9th Circuit denied the church’s claim that it had suffered a denial of equal treatment, the victory that Cedar Park obtained in successfully alleging that SB 6219 had prevented them from finding comparable replacement coverage provides a foothold for churches in Washington to use in order to maintain their ardent fight against being forced to provide abortions against their moral convictions.

Screenshot from Alliance Defending Freedom