SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by several California churches over a state directive that they believe forces all faith-based employers to pay for abortion coverage regardless of their religious beliefs.
“[P]laintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to make it plausible that the director has selectively applied the law to target the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller on Friday.
As previously reported, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) issued a letter in August 2014 requiring all insurance companies in the state to cover abortions, seemingly leaving no way for religious organizations, including churches, to opt out or choose an alternative plan.
“Abortion is a basic health care service,” Director Michelle Rouillard wrote to the seven insurance companies that refused to offer coverage. “All health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.”
She asserted that abortion must be covered because the “California Constitution prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy,” and also cited a 1975 law surrounding “medically necessary” health care.
The directive is believed to be a result of a decision made in 2014 by two Roman Catholic/Jesuit universities in the state—Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University—to no longer pay for abortions, but that employees could buy coverage through a third party. Some faculty members objected to the announcement and called upon Gov. Jerry Brown to intervene.
The Life Legal Defense Foundation (LLDF) and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) soon filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after the DMHC refused to change its decision following written correspondence between the groups.
They then filed a second complaint with the federal government on behalf of seven churches, one of which operates a Christian school, to again assert that the mandate violates the rights of faith-based employers. It cited the federal Weldon Amendment, which mandates that a state be forfeited of certain government funds if it “subjects any … health care entity to discrimination” because the entity “does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”
Skyline Church in La Mesa, Foothill Church and Foothill Christian School in Glendora, Alpine Christian Fellowship in El Cajon, The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, City View Church in San Diego, Faith Baptist Church in Santa Barbara, and Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in Chino were all represented in the complaint.
In October 2015, Foothill Church, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills and The Shepherd of the Hills Church filed a federal lawsuit against DMHC with the assistance of ADF, seeking a declaration that the mandate violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the directive.
They explained that they had contacted their insurers in an effort to ensure that their employee health plans do not include abortion, but were told that the DMHC’s directives prevented them from providing plans that exclude or limit abortion coverage.
However, on Friday, Judge Mueller, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, said that the churches hadn’t proven that the DMHC and Rouillard would not accommodate their religious beliefs. She noted that the churches had found that Rouillard had granted an exemption to at least one organization, but the entity allows abortion in the cases or rape or incest, while the churches believe abortion is always wrong.
“Plaintiffs also allege the director has granted an exception to accommodate religious employers who oppose abortion except in the case of rape or incest, but has not granted an exception that would accommodate plaintiffs’ beliefs that abortion is always immoral. They claim these allegations show she ‘has exercised her discretion in a way that prefers some religious beliefs to others,'” Mueller outlined.
The judge disagreed with this conclusion, remarking that the “exemption evinces, if anything, the director’s ‘intent to accommodate, rather than impose burdens on, religious belief.'”
“[P]laintiffs have made only the bald allegation that the director ‘refuses to grant an exemption that would accommodate the religious beliefs of the churches,'” Mueller said. “Plaintiffs have not alleged that any plan that would be acceptable to them has been submitted to the director for approval, nor that she rejected any such plan.”
“Thus their allegation that ‘she has repeatedly refused to grant them [an exemption],’ is conclusory and insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.”
ADF says that the churches are considering the path forward at this time.
“If the state can force a church to pay for the very thing they counsel against, in violation of their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, then no American is secure,” said legal counsel Jeremiah Galus. “Because the court’s decision ignores the longstanding freedom of faith communities to act consistently with their religious mission, we are consulting with our clients about next steps.”