A federal court ruled Thursday that California’s mandate that churches must provide abortion coverage in their employees’ health insurance is an unconstitutional infringement of the free exercise clause in the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Sacramento Division, struck down the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) requirement that employers, including Foothill Church in Glendora, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills in Chino, and The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, must pay for elective abortions through employee health insurance.
Each of the congregations involved as plaintiffs in the case employs more than 50 workers who must be offered health insurance plans. Controversy surrounding the mandate was sparked by a 2014 letter from state officials that ordered seven private health insurance providers to eliminate all restrictions on abortion coverage.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Arizona-based public interest law firm that specializes in First Amendment/Religious Freedom litigation, represents the congregations in this case.
“The government can’t force a church or any other religious employer to violate their faith and conscience by participating in funding abortion,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “For years, California has unconstitutionally targeted faith-based organizations, so we’re pleased the court has found this mandate unconstitutional and will allow the churches we represent to operate freely according to their religious beliefs.”
Interestingly, emails ADF attorneys obtained during discovery revealed the prominent role Planned Parenthood played in the controversy.
As revealed in e-mails that ADF attorneys discovered, the California Department of Managed Health Care 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. The abortion giant threatened to promote its own legislative ‘solution’ if the administrative agency didn’t act, so DMHC issued its mandate in 2014,” ADF explained in a statement issued following the court’s decision.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, the Chief Judge of the District Court, signed the decision, which said:
In sum, the [DMHC] Director has not shown ‘[she] lacks other means of achieving [her] desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by [plaintiffs]. The Director’s denial of the Churches’ request for exceptions to accommodate their religious beliefs, based solely on the fact that those requests did not originate with a plan, was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest.
But the Sacramento Division District Court’s decision was not entirely in favor of the plaintiffs as Judge Mueller denied their motion regarding the state’s alleged violation of the congregations’ rights under the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
The latest decision involving California churches follows the announcement of litigation filed by Calvary Chapel Church of San Jose, its Senior Pastor Mike McLure, and Pastor Carson Atherly, against San Jose County and its health officer, Sarah Cody, as well as County Counsel James Williams.
The church claims county officials have systematically violated the congregation’s constitutional rights since ordering all public assemblies, including religious assemblies, to cease meeting or impose social distancing requirements as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Calvary Chapel continued meeting, in open defiance of the county’s mandates. County officials then began issuing a series of fines assessed against the church and the pastors as individuals totaling at last count nearly $2.8 million.
But the church was vindicated on August 15 when the California Court of Appeals vacated the fines and ruled the county order in violation of the Constitution.
“For the reasons stated below, we conclude that the temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions are facially unconstitutional pursuant to the recent guidance of the United States Supreme Court regarding the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion in the context of public health orders that impact religious practice (see, e.g., Tandon v. Newsom (2021) 593 U.S. __ [141 S. Ct. 1294] (Tandon).)
“As the underlying orders which Calvary Chapel violated are void and unenforceable, we will annul the orders of contempt in their entirety and reverse the orders to pay monetary sanctions.”
Robert Tyler, President of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a public interest law firm that represents the church, said in a statement issued after the Appeals Court decision that “this is a significant victory for churches and pastors across this country. We are honored to represent pastors and churches who are willing to take the heat in defense of liberty because it benefits everyone.”
In the same statement, McClure said “I thank God that our actions have been justified by the Court of Appeal. We are here to help the hurting, save the lost, and worship God without governmental intrusion.”