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Showdown over abortion coverage

Religious Liberty | Trump administration and California dig in for a battle between abortion and religious liberty
by Steve West
Posted 2/04/20, 04:12 pm

When the Trump administration announced California has violated federal law by forcing all health insurance plans to cover elective abortions, it ensured at least one thing: further litigation with the state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is cracking down on California’s violation of freedom of conscience rules for people who do not want to pay for abortions or contraceptives for religious reasons. Two religious groups in the state, Los Angeles–based Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit and La Mesa’s Skyline Wesleyan Church, complained to HHS about California’s policy that requires abortion coverage in all healthcare plans—even those provided by churches and religious institutions. On Jan. 24, HHS issued a notice to the state saying the rule violates the federal Weldon Amendment, which prohibits states that receive federal funding from compelling healthcare plans to fund abortion.

“No one should force a church or any other employer to participate in funding abortion,” said Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Denise Harle, adding that California’s Department of Managed Health Care has “unconstitutionally targeted religious organizations, repeatedly collaborated with pro-abortion advocates, and failed to follow the appropriate administrative procedures to institute its unprecedented mandate.”

ADF is representing Skyline Wesleyan and three other churches in two cases challenging the abortion coverage mandate. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in November 2019 in Skyline Wesleyan Church v. California Department of Managed Health Care. Three other churches are before the appeals court in Foothill Church v. Rouillard.

HHS gave the state 30 days to comply with federal law, but Harle is not optimistic, especially with the pro-abortion track record of state Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“In California, we will continue to protect our families’ access to healthcare, including women’s constitutional right to abortion,” Becerra said. “Nothing changes.”

California has even gone on the offensive. Last Thursday, Becerra along with six states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit challenging a new HHS rule requiring healthcare plans to send separate bills and collect separate payments for abortion coverage. He called the requirement “just another Trump Administration attack on women and reproductive rights.” Last month, the state secured a court order temporarily blocking HHS rules to expand religious exemptions to the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act. The new rules were set to go into effect on Jan. 14.

The public war of words between the federal government and the state of California shows no sign of abating. “No one in America should be forced to pay for or cover other people’s abortions,” said Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office of Civil Rights. “We are putting California on notice that it must stop forcing people of goodwill to subsidize the taking of human life, not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it’s the law.”

First Liberty First Liberty The campus of Central UTA of Monsey in New York

Weaponized zoning

A decades-old feud between a New York village and an Orthodox Jewish community has heated up again in federal court. On Jan. 23, U.S. District Judge Vincent Briccetti greenlighted a Hasidic Jewish school’s lawsuit against the town of Airmont. The Central United Talmudical Academy of Monsey filed suit in November 2018, claiming Airmont government officials and the local school district used discriminatory zoning laws to dissuade Orthodox Jewish residents from living in the village.

The conflict dates to Airmont’s incorporation in 1991. The newly formed village adopted zoning laws that prohibited Hasidic Jews from having worship meetings in homes—a common practice since the religion does not allow driving on the Jewish Sabbath. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit alleging the village was incorporated primarily to exclude Hasidic Jews. The Justice Department cited remarks like one made by Airmont businessman Robert Fletcher, who allegedly said at a community meeting that “ the only reason we formed this village is to keep those … Jews out of here.’”

The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the Justice Department. A subsequent dispute in 2005 ended with the village agreeing it would not use zoning laws to disrupt the religious exercise of the Orthodox Jewish community. That consent decree expired in 2011.

The current dispute arose from an attempt by Central UTA of Monsey to expand the 21-acre property it purchased in 2016. Members of the Hasidic community are required to educate their children at a religious school with separate classes for boys and girls. Airmont officials have only approved the use of the land for a school with 167 students or less even though the same site previously housed a private school with 400 students from the larger Jewish population. As a result, many local Hasidic families must homeschool or send their children to private schools farther away. Several families who want to move to Airmont have not because of the lack of available schooling for their children, according to the lawsuit.

Since Central UTA requested approval for expanding on and improving the site, it claims it has been the victim of a coordinated campaign of discrimination. The lawsuit cited comments about the dispute on social media and local news articles that called the Hasidic community a cult, thieves, and leeches on public welfare.

First Liberty’s Keisha Russell, who represents the school, said while Airmont officials claim the restrictive zoning is meant to preserve its tax base and community character, “ultimately you have to look out how their decisions are affecting the religious practice of an entire group of people and only that group of people.”

New York saw an increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the last year, and neighboring Monsey was the site of a December attack against Jews celebrating Hanukkah. —S.W. The Virginia Capitol in Richmond

Whose values?

A bill before the Virginia General Assembly that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s nondiscrimination law has churches and religious schools in the state concerned.

The Virginia Values Act cleared committees in the House of Delegates and Senate last week, and the Democratic majorities in both chambers likely will send it to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for his signature.

The measure provides no exemptions for religious organizations with more than five employees, meaning a Christian school could not fire a practicing homosexual or require separate restroom or locker room facilities for boys and girls, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver told CBN News.

“Whether they intend to or not, Virginia lawmakers who support sexual orientation and gender identity bills are choosing to coerce uniformity of thought and speech on beliefs about marriage, sex, and gender,” said Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Gregory Baylor. —S.W. The TikTok app on an iPhone

TikTok takeback

The popular Chinese-owned video platform TikTok reinstated the account of pro-life organization Live Action on Friday. A day earlier, the organization said the social media platform had banned it “due to multiple community guidelines violations.” TikTok in a statement blamed the ban on human error and said there were no violations, National Review reported.

The platform took down the account after Live Action posted a video Thursday that showed a woman choosing between a pro-life and pro-abortion “pill,” followed by images of babies and pro-life comments.

Live Action founder Lila Rose claimed other social media platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, and Twitter have censored the organization.

“How long before Big Tech shuts all pro-life and conservative voices out of social media?” tweeted U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who serves on a Senate committee examining claims of bias on social media platforms. TikTok has also come under scrutiny for censoring content critical of the Chinese government. —S.W.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.


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  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Wed, 02/05/2020 09:29 am

    It is unclear to me how requiring health insure to provide for abortions will "protect our families’ access to healthcare." The presumption appears to be that unless the cost of a procedure is provided for by insurance, it cannot be paid for. It is generally the case that a procedure paid for by insurance is more expensive than were it not. Where this is not the case, it is probably the result of some "sweet deal" provided by group policies. Perhaps California could try to enact legislation that does not disadvantage individual/cash payments of medical bills. They might be concerned that poorer women cannot afford to pay for their abortions. They depend upon health insurance provided by their employer to pay for it. This is an odd situation encouraged, it seems, by the tax code. It is apparently "cheaper" for an employer to "pay" for an employee's health insurance than for the employee to be paid that money and purchase their own health insurance. In any case, why is it not possible for employees to have the option of purchasing health insurance with or without abortion coverage? Perhaps this would be more expensive than having insurance where everyone pays for it, but can it be that much more expensive? Insurance costs already distinguish between smokers and nonsmokers, and this because they belong to a decidedly different statistical pool. There are, then, two distinct principles at work here. Either we decide as a community that we will share in everyone's health costs equally, or we will divide ourselves up into different statistical pools. In the latter, we are concerned for our risks and perhaps those of our family. In the former, there is no distinguishing peoples and their ways. These are important distinctions. The first allows for individual lives and choices. We don't all have to purchase the same house or car. We allow each of us to choose our level of risk when it comes to insuring these, and yet we require minimal insurance for harm to others. OTOH, we would want to care for all independent of their backgrounds and histories. And yet, as Marvin Olasky recently reminded us, even where charity is provided we do require that those receiving it in some sense work or amend their ways. This is a delicate issue. And then there is that equally delicate issue where we might be asked to fund what we consider immoral, as is the case for abortion. And yet all of us is compelled to fund military actions which some of us might regard as immoral. It is part of the cost of living in a sinful world with a sinful community. We can speak against these military actions, something we have gladly been permitted, as we can against abortion. Are we then to be expected to pay for other's abortions in the same spirit? All of this is complicated by the means of this payment. It is one thing to pay for a person's abortion face to face, and another to do it anonymously through insurance or governmental payments. Perhaps some of these sensitivities and issues can be minimized, but they cannot be escaped. Without grace and forgiveness, both for us and our neighbors, there would be no hope, no way to go forward without bitterness.