Opponents of religious freedom love to use “separation of church and state” as a misguided battle cry to remove prayer from public schools, erase historical religious landmarks, and even block faithful Christians from public service.
Meanwhile, real violations of religious freedom have occurred across the country.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw numerous attempts by state governments to control what churches teach, where they worship, and how they exercise their religious freedom. Some government officials put the First Amendment on hold and treated churches worse than secular businesses, allowing bars, casinos, and even theme parks to operate at much higher capacities than worship services.
But long before the pandemic, Cedar Park Assembly of God faced a harrowing threat to its religious freedom. The state of Washington enacted a law that forces churches like Cedar Park to pay for abortions—including surgical abortions—through their health insurance plans.
Let’s take a look at Cedar Park, its pastor, and how the church is standing up to this unconstitutional state law.
Who are Jay and Sandy Smith?
Jay and Sandy Smith don’t just talk about being pro-life—they live it.
Jay is the senior pastor at Cedar Park in Kirkland, Washington. Cedar Park is a church that continually lives out its pro-life views in a variety of tangible ways. The church’s pro-life ministries include partnering with a local pregnancy center and foster care providers, organizing an annual camp for children in foster care, and hosting an annual prayer service to pray for couples struggling with infertility. Jay’s predecessor even co-founded an adoption ministry for frozen embryos remaining after in vitro fertilization.
Jay and Sandy have a personal experience that has shaped their pro-life views, too. When Sandy found out she was pregnant in high school, she and Jay were taken by surprise. Sandy briefly considered abortion. But instead, the couple decided to get married and they had their first of four daughters together. Jay and Sandy have no regrets; they consider each of their daughters to be a great blessing from the Lord.
So, when they found out that Washington had passed a law that would require their church to pay for abortions, it felt like a slap in the face. And they knew they had to do something about it.
Cedar Park believes and teaches that every human life—whether born or unborn—is valuable, precious, and worthy of protection. But rather than respecting Cedar Park’s freedom to exercise its religious convictions, the state of Washington has gone out of its way to force pro-life churches to pay for abortions.
In early 2018, the Washington State Senate passed SB 6219, the so-called “Reproductive Parity Act.” This act mandates that health-care plans in the state that offer maternity care must also pay for elective abortions. As a result, Cedar Park’s health insurer put surgical abortion coverage directly into the church’s health plan.
This means that when Cedar Park provides its more than 180 employees and their families with quality, affordable health insurance, it has to fund abortions. Failure to do so could mean fines and criminal penalties, including jail time.
Jay and Sandy knew that their religious freedom was being violated, so they contacted Alliance Defending Freedom. In March 2019, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on Cedar Park’s behalf.
What’s at stake?
When we hear people invoking the “separation of church and state,” it often means they want to shut believers out of the public square. But that concept is wrong.
When the Founders drafted the First Amendment, they were concerned with protecting believers from the government—not the other way around.
The state of Washington is violating the First Amendment right to religious freedom by trying to impose its pro-abortion views onto churches like Cedar Park, requiring them to pay for abortions. This is a violation of churches’ religious freedom. That’s why Cedar Park challenged the law in federal court.
- March 2019: Cedar Park challenged Washington’s “Reproductive Parity Act” in federal district court.
- May 2020: The district court dismissed Cedar Park’s case.
- September 2020: ADF attorneys representing Cedar Park filed their opening brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
- July 2021: ADF attorneys argued before the 9th Circuit, and the court ruled that Cedar Park properly challenged the Washington state abortion law and that the district court was wrong to dismiss the church’s free-exercise claim.
- August 2023: After the district court heard the case and ruled that Cedar Park must violate its constitutionally protected beliefs, ADF attorneys appealed the ruling back to the 9th Circuit.
The bottom line
Churches should be free to operate according to their faith without being threatened by the government.