Sign at the entrance to Skyline Church in La Mesa. Photo by Chris Stone

Whatever its skills may be in handling medical costs, the California Department of Managed Health Care is exceedingly careful when it comes to managing information.

More than five years ago, department officials held secret conferences with pro-abortion advocates, rescinded religious accommodations for churches, and forced insurance companies to go along with revised statutes—all without voters, legislators, or congregations knowing anything about their activities.

Which is why church leaders across the state found it such a rude awakening to learn—seemingly overnight, and with no warning—that their employee insurance plans now require them to cover elective abortions. And that, the 9th Circuit has now said in a lawsuit filed by a San Diego-area church, is “an injury in fact.”

Understand: This wasn’t an accident. Churches didn’t happen to get caught in the undertow of some sweeping new government policy shift. State officials, with clear evidence that their actions would significantly impact churches and religious organizations—and only churches and religious organizations—deliberately opted to inflict that damage, resulting in pastors being compelled to finance procedures they preach against from the pulpit.

A group of unelected government officials colluded behind closed doors with the state’s most aggressive abortion advocates, namely Planned Parenthood, to come up with a fine-print adjustment to the existing insurance laws…one specifically designed to force people of faith to compromise their pro-life religious convictions.

The deal went down like this: Abortion advocates—upset that Catholic universities had been allowed, consistent with their religious beliefs, to exclude elective abortion coverage from their insurance plans—urged DMHC officials to quietly institute a major reinterpretation of the over 40-year-old Knox-Keene Act regulating insurance requirements.

“Quietly” meant intentionally bypassing the democratic process in favor of what Planned Parenthood cheerfully proposed as “an administrative solution in lieu of legislation.” In other words, “Why bother voters and legislators with these pesky little details?”

DMHC officials then contacted insurance providers to inform them of the new, mandatory revisions to insurance policies for churches and religious organizations—revisions that now required them to provide immediate coverage of elective abortion. If the providers were concerned about how these religious groups might respond to the revisions, the DMHC had a simple suggestion: Just don’t tell them.

Meanwhile, if some observant church accountant should somehow stumble upon the changes, the church would have three options: 1) come up with their own, self-funded private insurance plan (prohibitively expensive for all but the largest churches); 2) not offer their employees insurance (unthinkable—and illegal); or 3) agree to offer coverage for abortions.

It’s a neat little trap. It’s also a clear violation of the First Amendment’s clause forbidding government intrusion on the “free exercise” of religious faith. And it ignores recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting the right of churches to control their own internal affairs and declaring government hostility against people of faith to be unconstitutional.

But not all churches are taking the state’s overstepping lying down. After a district court denied its request for relief from the new directive, Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The court issued a decision on May 13 that sends the case back to the district court, saying “We hold that Skyline has suffered an injury in fact. Before the Letters [implementing the mandate] were sent, Skyline had insurance that excluded abortion coverage in a way that was consistent with its religious beliefs. After the Letters were sent, Skyline did not have that coverage, and it has presented evidence that its new coverage violated its religious beliefs. There is nothing hypothetical about the situation.”

Skyline’s leaders believe the church has a religious obligation to care for its employees, including offering them a generous health insurance plan. But church members also hold to the biblical teaching that abortion is wrong…and understandably look to hire employees who share that belief.

They also understandably look to state officials to follow the Constitution, honor the law, and observe the prescribed processes for changing and enforcing government regulations. DMHC officials have betrayed that trust. More than that, they have worked in collusion with Planned Parenthood and its allies to codify contempt for religious freedom in California.

This is not a case that many would have thought could exist in the first place, but since it does, the 9th Circuit was right to recognize that what DMHC officials have done cannot simply be swept under the rug.

Jeremiah Galus is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom and represents Skyline Wesleyan Church.

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