On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave a Seattle-area church a second chance to make its case in court after a Washington state law forced the church to pay for abortion in its health care plan. The district court had thrown out Cedar Park Church’s lawsuit, claiming that the church lacked standing to challenge the law because it could not state an injury. Three judges on the 9th Circuit reversed that ruling.
Senate Bill 6219, signed into law in March 2018, requires employers to provide abortion coverage in their health care plans if they also offer maternity care coverage to employees. The law does not include exemptions for pro-life or religious employers such as Cedar Park Church. Cedar Park’s health care insurer, Kaiser Permanente, included coverage for surgical abortion directly in the church’s health care plan after the law went into effect. The insurer indicated that it would remove the coverage if a court held that the law cannot be applied to churches.
“Cedar Park’s complaint plausibly alleged that, due to the enactment of SB 6219, its health insurer stopped offering a plan with abortion coverage restrictions and Cedar Park could not procure comparable replacement coverage. This is sufficient to state an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to SB 6219,” the three-judge panel ruled.
The court ruled that the state has the power to redress the injury. “The fact that Cedar Park had access to an acceptable plan is strong evidence that Cedar Park could obtain a similar plan from Kaiser Permanente or another heath insurer if the state is enjoined from enforcing SB 6219.”
Lawyers for Washington state argued that S.B. 6219 did not prevent Kaiser Permanente from continuing to offer a plan that excluded abortion coverage but the court ruled that the insurer “reasonably understood the plain language” of the law as “precluding such restrictions, and it acted accordingly when it removed the restrictions from Cedar Park’s health plan.”
While the 9th Circuit panel resurrected the lawsuit, it upheld the district court’s ruling against one of Cedar Park Church’s claims, the claim that Washington state had violated the church’s right to equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment. Even so, the church will return to the district court with a claim that the state violated its First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
“No church should be forced to cover abortions, and certainly not a church like Cedar Park that dedicates its ministry to protecting and celebrating life,” Elissa Graves, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the law firm representing the church, said in a statement on Thursday. “We are pleased the 9th Circuit rightly recognized the harm that Washington state has inflicted on Cedar Park Church in subjecting it to this unprecedented mandate.”
“Washington state has no legal authority to force places of worship to fund abortions and violate their constitutional rights, as well as their religious beliefs,” John Bursch, senior counsel and vice president at ADF, said in a statement. “Today’s decision is a big step forward in preventing the government from targeting churches and we look forward to continue challenging this law at the district court.”
It is beyond the pale that Washington state forced a pro-life church to pay for the killing of unborn babies in the womb. While it seems unlikely that any woman at the church either had an abortion or will have an abortion so long as the church’s health care plan covers the killing of an unborn baby, this situation is a gross miscarriage of justice. The 9th Circuit was right to resurrect this legal case.