SAN DIEGO (CN) - A San Diego church sued the California Department of Managed Health Care over a requirement it cover abortions in its employee health care plans.
Skyline Wesleyan Church sued the department and its director Michelle Rouillard in San Diego Superior Court Thursday and is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and damages.
The church sued the department over a mandate issued in 2014 requiring group health insurance plans to provide coverage for all legal abortions, including voluntary and elective ones.
Skyline is a nonprofit Christian church located in the city of La Mesa, in east San Diego County. The "megachurch" averages about 2,500 attendees per week, according to San Diego media outlet 10 News.
According to the complaint, Skyline had previously provided health coverage to employees that excluded coverage for voluntary and elective abortions. The church claims the abortion mandate went into effect without notice and they were not aware their employer group health plan had been changed.
The church claims it found out about the change when they consulted with their insurance provider about purchasing a group plan that did not cover abortions and were told under the new mandate they could no longer do that. According to the complaint, the health department "encouraged" insurers not to notify employers of the change in coverage and advised they could insert the coverage "yet omit any mention of coverage for abortion services in health plan documents."
In the letters sent by the department, insurers were told they could omit the information on abortions because it is considered "a basic health care service."
The department based the mandate on the Knox-Keene Health Care Service Plan Act of 1975, a California law which requires employer health plans cover "basic health care services."
Skyline argues the "basic health care services" provision Knox-Keene covers such medical services as physician services, hospital inpatient services, ambulatory care services, diagnostic laboratory services and other "medically necessary" services. Elective abortion procedures do not fall under the "medically necessary" category, the church claims.
In letters sent out to insurance providers, the health department claimed "all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally."
According to the complaint, the department did not notify or comment on the mandate publicly and instead sent letters to private health insurers and posted the letters on their website.
Skyline teaches that "participation in, facilitation of, or payment for an elective or voluntary abortion is a grave sin," according to its lawsuit. The church also supports medical centers and clinics that provide "life-affirming" counseling and medical services to women with unplanned pregnancies, and offers support groups and bible study for women who have had abortions.
The church says it expects its employees to "abide by the church's moral and ethical standards, including its religious beliefs and teachings on abortion, in both their work life and private life."
California's mandate does not include an exemption for group health insurance plans purchased by churches or other employers that have religious beliefs against abortion. Skyline claims the mandate is at odds with the way the Knox-Keene Act treats religious employers, citing an exemption that allows religious employers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage. Religious employers are also exempt from providing health insurance coverage for infertility treatments, according to the complaint.
This is just the newest legal battle for Skyline Church, whose leaders have been public crusaders against other controversial issues such as same-sex marriage in California. The church rallied support for Prop. 8, which halted same-sex marriage for more than five years, and challenging the state's ban on gay-conversion therapy for children under 18.
Skyline claims the abortion mandate was made in response to Catholic universities Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University seeking to deny abortion coverage to their employees.
Skyline claims it is forced between violating the federal Affordable Care Act - which carries crippling fines for not providing employee health coverage - and providing coverage that violates its religious beliefs by paying for abortions. The church also contends having to pay for abortion coverage could jeopardize the donations it receives from church members and "violate[s] the implicit trust of their tithes and donations."
Skyline, along with other California churches, filed a formal complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights a month after the abortion mandate went into effect, asking it to enforce the Hyde-Weldon Amendment which makes exemptions for religious employers.
Skyline joins other churches across California that have already sued the department over the mandate including the Foothill Church in Glendora, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills and The Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch.
The church is represented by a raft of attorneys, including Charles LiMandri of the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund in Rancho Santa Fe, California and Kevin Theriot, Erik Stanley, Jeremiah Galus, David Hacker and Casey Mattox of with Alliance Defending Freedom chapters in California, Arizona and Washington.
Galus told Courthouse News California's required abortion coverage and the Obamacare mandate puts churches in a compromising position.
"California forced abortion coverage into churches' health insurance plans without their knowledge or approval. Because Obamacare requires employers to provide health insurance coverage, the California mandate has left churches with no way to opt out of paying for abortions," Galus said. "Californians should not be forced to choose between following their deepest convictions and submitting to unlawful and unnecessary government mandates."
Stanley - Alliance Defending Freedom's senior legal counsel and the director of Center for Christian Ministries - told Courthouse News "churches should not be forced to pay for the killing of innocent human life."
He added, "The government has no right to demand that church health insurance plans include coverage for elective abortions - something that violates the most sincerely held religious beliefs of this church and nearly all churches throughout the state. California is violating its own laws and constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, by strong-arming churches into having this coverage in their plans."
The Department of Managed Health Care did not respond to phone and emailed requests for comment.Follow @@BiancaDBruno
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