California Courts: Churches Can't Be Forced to Fund Abortion
How extreme is the state of California on abortion?
You probably already know that the state tried to force pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for abortions. But you might not know that some state officials tried to force churches to pay for abortions.
That’s not a typo. A California agency actually required that elective abortion coverage be added to the employee health-care plans of churches in the state—without even telling them. Thankfully, Skyline Wesleyan Church took a stand against the state and won a huge victory for religious freedom.
Let’s take a look at the details of this case.
What is Skyline Wesleyan Church?
Located in La Mesa, Skyline Wesleyan Church has been a fixture in the San Diego area for over 60 years. Everything the church does is rooted in biblical principles.
Since its first gathering in the summer of 1954, pastors and leaders of Skyline Wesleyan Church have called upon their congregations to live out their faith and practice what they preach. Church leaders do this by advocating for life at every stage as well as taking good care of their employees by providing them with the very best health-care policies available.
The California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) told the church that it must choose one or the other.
Skyline Wesleyan Church v. California Department of Managed Health Care
In August 2014, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) mandated that the health-care plans of churches and religious organizations cover elective abortions. This mandate added elective abortion coverage to Skyline Wesleyan Church’s health-care plan—without the church even knowing about it.
The DMHC sent a letter to insurance providers in the state telling them that it would be illegal for them to allow churches and religious organizations to exclude elective abortion coverage in their health-care plans. In its letter, the DMHC remarkably claimed that all abortions are “basic health care services” that are “medically necessary” and therefore must be covered.
These unelected officials made this decision without passing a regulation or allowing for public input. And what’s worse is that they did so after being influenced by pro-abortion groups like Planned Parenthood.
The state even had evidence that its mandate would only affect religious organizations. This new low clearly violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by targeting churches and religious organizations.
Skyline Wesleyan Church, along with millions of Christians across the country, holds the biblical belief that every human life—born or unborn—has worth and dignity. Opposing abortions in its health-care plans is non-negotiable. The church had no choice but to file a complaint against the DMHC, and more than seven years later, God delivered a victory.
Two federal courts in California ruled that the First Amendment protects churches’ right to decline elective abortion coverage in their health insurance plans. The rulings resolved Skyline Wesleyan Church’s lawsuit and a separate lawsuit brought by three additional California churches.
No church or individual should be forced to participate in funding abortion. Every American has the right to live and work according to their faith without fear of unjust punishment by the government, and these rulings ensured those rights for Skyline Wesleyan and three other churches in California.
As a result of the rulings, state officials agreed to pay $1,400,000 toward the attorneys’ fees for the four churches.
- August 2014: The California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) issued a mandate requiring group health insurance plans, including those of churches, to provide coverage for all legal abortions.
- February 2016: Skyline Wesleyan Church filed a lawsuit challenging the DMHC’s abortion-coverage requirement.
- March 2018: The federal district court denied Skyline’s request for relief. That April, the church asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to reverse that decision.
- November 2019: Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys argued the case in front of the 9th Circuit.
- May 2020: The 9th Circuit ruled in favor of Skyline Wesleyan Church. The court held that the church properly challenged the state’s abortion-coverage mandate and that the lower district court was wrong to dismiss the church’s claims. The 9th Circuit recognized that Skyline suffered an injury when the state mandated that its healthcare plan cover elective abortions. The case was remanded to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the 9th Circuit’s ruling as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia in 2021.
- May 2023: The federal district court ruled that the First Amendment protects Skyline’s right to decline elective abortion coverage in its health insurance plan. A different federal court in the state had already ruled that California’s mandate was unconstitutional in a separate ADF case. Given the two rulings, state officials agree to pay $1,400,000 toward the attorneys’ fees for Skyline Wesleyan Church and three other churches that brought a similar lawsuit against California.
The bottom line
Churches should be free to operate according to their faith without being threatened by the government.
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.