Washington D.C., Jan 24, 2020 / 02:23 pm (CNA).- The Trump administration has said that California state policies violate federal law for requiring abortion coverage in religious groups’ health insurance plans – a mandate that Catholic leaders had charged “directly targeted” Catholic universities that had stopped paying for employees’ elective abortions.
California has 30 days to comply with federal law, and failure to comply could threaten its federal funding, Roger Severino, director of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, said in a Jan. 24 conference call with reporters.
Catholic leaders welcomed the Trump administration’s move, which coincided with the March for Life in Washington, D.C. where President Donald Trump became the first president to address the event in person.
“Today’s announcement is extraordinarily good news for the right to life, conscientious objection, religious freedom and the rule of law,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Jan. 24. “For nearly six years, employers in California – including churches – have been forced to fund and facilitate abortions in their health insurance plans in direct violation of a federal conscience protection law known as the Weldon Amendment. This coercive California policy is abhorrent, unjust and illegal.”
The bishops’ statement came from Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop George Murry, S.J., of Youngstown, who chairs the Committee for Religious Liberty.
The Weldon Amendment, first passed in 2005, bars federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against institutional or individual healthcare entities, including health insurance plans, that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for, abortions.
Severino told reporters the HHS action was a response to complaints from a Catholic mission, Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit, and the California-based Skyline Wesleyan Church, the Washington Post reports.
“There is a process, if we do not reach accord, that could lead to revocation of streams of federal funding,” Severino said. “California is a big consumer of HHS funds. We’re giving them 30 days so that we don’t have to cross that bridge.”
The California Catholic Conference filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, but the Obama administration rejected the complaint in June 2016.
“We strongly commend the Trump Administration for taking this critical action to enforce federal law and correct this supreme injustice to the people and employers of California,” the U.S. bishops said. “Sadly, violations of federal conscience laws are on the rise. We hope that this enforcement action, and subsequent actions by the Administration, will stop further unlawful discrimination against people who reject abortion as a violation of the most basic human and civil rights.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, was dismissive of the action.
“The Trump administration would rather rile up its base to score cheap political points and risk access to care for millions than do what’s right,” Newsom said. “California will continue to protect a woman’s right to choose, and we won’t back down from defending reproductive freedom for everybody — full stop.”
The Trump administration’s move could have ramifications for at least five other U.S. states with similar mandates, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Oregon Right to Life has filed suit against the 2017 Oregon law requiring health plans to cover abortion. In October 2019, the Thomas More Society challenged a similar Illinois mandate. New York and Washington also require abortion coverage in private health plans.
The California rule was so broad that churches and other religious groups could not secure abortion-free California health plans for their employees. Its history, however, was rooted in an effort of Catholic universities to reform their health plans to become more consistent with their Catholic identity.
In August 2014 California’s Department of Managed Health sent a letter to seven insurance companies stating that they are required to include elective abortions in their health plans. A 1975 state health care law, the California constitution, and court precedent, it said, prohibits health plans “from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy.” The law requires all health plans to “treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” the state regulator said.
The action came after the autumn 2013 announcements from two Catholic universities, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University, which said that they planned to stop paying for employees’ elective abortions. They said their insurers, Anthem Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente, had secured approval from state officials.
In an October 2013 letter, Santa Clara University president Father Michael E. Engh, S.J., said that the university’s “core commitments” are incompatible with abortion coverage. Before the policy was revised, Santa Clara’s health plan also provided abortion coverage to dependents of faculty and staff.
The universities’ move against abortion coverage drew praise from Catholic and pro-life groups. However, the policy changes drew strong opposition from pro-abortion politicians and advocacy groups, as well as from many faculty and staff at the historically Jesuit Catholic schools. In December 2013, Santa Clara University faculty rejected the anti-abortion changes to the health care plan by a vote of 215 to 89.
Lobbyists from Planned Parenthood wrote to the California Department of Health and Human Services to insist that agency rules be changed to force religious groups to provide coverage for elective abortions. Emails showing this effort were contained in 2017 court filings from the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group but date to the time of the controversy.
The emails specifically named the two Catholic universities.
The insurers and the universities agreed to comply with the state’s new pro-abortion requirements. However, the state rules drew strong opposition from the California Catholic Conference, which charged that the state government “directly targeted” the two Catholic universities and violated federally guaranteed civil rights by ordering their health insurance plans to cover abortions.
“This is a coercive and discriminatory action by the State of California,” said Bishop Robert McElroy, then an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco and chairman of the state Catholic conference’s Institutional Concerns Committee.
McElroy, who became Bishop of San Diego in 2015, characterized the decision as a demand “directly targeted at Catholic institutions like Santa Clara University, Loyola Marymount University, along with other California employers and citizens.”
“It is a flagrant violation of their civil rights and deepest moral convictions, and is government coercion of the worst kind,” McElroy said Oct. 1, 2014.
In June 2016, the Obama Administration rejected the California Catholic Conference’s federal complaint against the mandate. The HHS Office for Civil Rights said it “found no violation of the Weldon Amendment and is closing this matter without further action.”
At that time, leaders with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it was “shocking” that the federal government allowed California to force all employers, including churches, to fund and facilitate elective abortions.
“Even those who disagree on the issue of life should be able to respect the conscience rights of those who wish not to be involved in supporting abortion,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said in June 2016. They objected that the ruling was “contrary to the plain meaning of the law” and called for Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, praised the Trump administration’s move against the California policy.
“Abortion is not health care and no American should ever be forced to participate in the destruction of innocent human life,” said Dannenfelser, who also co-chairs the Pro-Life Voices for Trump National Advisory Board ahead of the 2020 election.
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