On Friday, November 20, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) argued in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of churches throughout California, which have been forced by California’s Department of Managed Health Care’s mandate to cover elective abortions.
The case, Foothill Church v. Rouillard, is being argued on behalf of several churches, including Foothill Church in Glendora, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in Chino and The Shepard of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, though the final decision could have far-reaching effects.
According to internal emails found by ADF, “the agency issued its mandate in response to specific demands from Planned Parenthood. Those demands asked agency officials to implement a ‘fix’ requiring the health plans of religious organizations to include coverage for abortion, regardless of moral or conscientious objections and despite state recognition up to that point that religious groups shouldn’t be subject to such requirements.”
“This case relates to the California’s Department of Managed Health Care’s reinterpretation of an over 40-year-old state law, the Knox Keene Act,” Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in an interview with The Daily Citizen. “It told health insurance companies in 2014 that that state law required coverage for elective abortions. It did so in a way that only affected religious organizations, the only groups with plans with abortion exclusions or limitations. It amounted to a revision of religious accommodations.”
The case was initially argued in front of the District Court, but the judge there ruled that the law was “neutral” and therefore the churches had no religious exemption. ADF appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit.
“We appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit, because we don’t think this is a ‘neutral’ law of general applicability,” Galus explained. “There are other health care plans that are exempted from the act’s requirements. There are health care plans that don’t have to provide for abortion coverage. And the director can exempt anyone or any person or class of contracts from the requirement. We say, this is the antithesis of a neutral and generally applicable policy and therefore the burden that you have placed on the churches’ religious beliefs is unconstitutional.”
Some of those organizations that receive this exemption include colleges and small business owners with five or fewer employees.
“Anytime you’re talking about churches, you’re talking about the heart of the First Amendment and the religious clause, the free exercise clause and the establishment clause. And if the government can force a church to fund abortion procedures, that their beliefs teach are tantamount to murder, what can’t the state do?” Galus said.
“I think regardless of your views on abortion and whether it’s a violation of one’s faith to provide coverage for abortion in health care plans, if the state can compel a church to do this, there is really no limit to the state’s power. We’re hopeful that the court sees that and sees the real danger of allowing the government to extend its authority this far.”
In addition to the three churches involved in the lawsuit, there are other churches, religious colleges and business owners with deeply held religious beliefs throughout the state who are anxiously awaiting the decision. Most notably is Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, California, which has a similar case against the state.
“One of the factual things that we didn’t get into today, but kind of shows how shocking the state’s action was here, is that they basically upended a 40-year-old plus state law that did not require abortion coverage for religious employers,” Galus said. “They changed the interpretation of that.
“And when they did it, they told the insurance companies that they didn’t have to notify the employers of the change in coverage. They said, ‘Because abortion is a basic health care service, you don’t even have to mention abortion in the health care plan.’ Our clients were not aware of the change in coverage until it was brought to their attention. And I’m certain that there are religious employers across the state that have no idea they are funding elective abortions in their employee health care plans and have been since 2014.”
During the COVID season, this isn’t a surprise. California has often gone out of its way to target churches and prevent services from being held or severely limiting capacity, while letting other businesses run without the same stringent requirements.
“I’d say I was mostly encouraged. The judges seemed to understand the arguments and the heart of the issue,” Galus said. “They’ve refused for six years now to accommodate the churches and others that share the churches religious beliefs. I’m hopeful that the court sees through that blatant litigation position that the state is taking.”
The decision is expected to come down sometime next year, likely in summer.
As the churches wait on the court’s decision, they still remain passionate about fighting for life.
“This is obviously something that is dear to their hearts and core to their religious beliefs, that every life is valuable and worth protecting, and they try to pursue that in all aspects of their ministry. That’s why they provide a generous health insurance policy, so they can take care of their employees. It’s near and dear to their hearts, no church wants to spend their time litigating lawsuits, that’s the last thing churches want to do,” Galus said.
“But yet, they are resolute and committed to this principle that churches have the right to operate according to their faith and life is worth protecting. I think they’re in it for the long haul, but they are anxious for a favorable ruling.”
Photo from Foothill Church via Facebook