A church based in Bothell, Washington, is suing Insurance Commissioner Myron “Mike” Kreidler and Gov. Jay Inslee for the right not to provide abortions in its health coverage. Cedar Park Assembly of God, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), brought its complaint to a district court in March 2019. The court dismissed the suit in May 2020, and on Sept. 2, Cedar Park Church filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“No church should be forced to cover abortions, and certainly not a church that dedicates its ministry to protecting and celebrating life like Cedar Park does,” said Elissa Graves, who serves as legal counsel with ADF. “Cedar Park believes and teaches that every human life begins at conception and is worthy of protection until natural death, so providing insurance coverage for abortions is clearly not something the church can or should be forced to do.”
Cedar Park Church Appeals Lower Court’s Decision
Washington State Senate Bill 6219, which went into effect June 7, 2018, requires Cedar Park Church to provide coverage for abortions and abortifacients if its insurance plan also provides maternity coverage. The church’s brief states that Cedar Park chooses to provide maternity coverage “for religious reasons and because the ACA requires the church to do so.” Cedar Park has over 185 employees and multiple campuses and ministries, including a funeral home and chapel, an auto repair shop, and a counseling program. Moreover, the church is responsible for Cedar Park Christian Schools, which has a child care program and multiple campuses with students from preschool age to 12th grade.
Should Cedar Park Church refuse to comply with Senate Bill 6219, the penalties are severe. If the church were to try to avoid the law by eliminating maternity coverage, it would face fines of $100 per plan participant per day it refused to comply. Furthermore, says the brief, “Any person who violates Washington’s abortion-coverage mandate is guilty of a gross misdemeanor and may be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned up to 364 days, in addition to other potential penalties.”
The church is unable to self-insure because to do so would be cost-prohibitive. “After evaluating self-insurance,” says the brief, “Cedar Park discovered that it would cost roughly $243,125 more annually to become self-insured and that this number is expected to double within a few years due to increased plan use.” Purchasing group health insurance, therefore, is the church’s only realistic option.
The brief notes that Cedar Park’s insurance provider, Kaiser Permanente, has expressed a willingness to remove abortion from the church’s coverage if it could do so without violating state law. It was only after the new law went into effect that Kaiser added abortion coverage to the church’s plan.
Senate Bill 6219 provides no exemptions for houses of worship that object to the law because of their religious beliefs, despite the fact that Washington law does provide such exemptions for “health care providers, religiously-sponsored carriers, and health care facilities.” The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Hobbs, reportedly did not see a need to write religious exemptions into the bill and said that if religious institutions had a problem with it, they had the “option of suing.”
The brief argues that when the lower court dismissed Cedar Park’s suit, the court was guilty of “misconstruing facts from outside the complaint” and that “even looking to extrinsic facts, the district court misread them.”
ADF lawyer Kevin Theriot told CBN News that he believes Cedar Park Church has a good chance of winning the case. In a similar ADF case, Skyline Wesleyan Church v. California Department of Managed Health Care, the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of the church in question. Theriot also believes “the chances are very good” that Cedar Park’s case could end up in front of the Supreme Court. Because ADF’s legal services are free, he encouraged any church facing a similar situation not to let concerns over legal costs stop them from standing up for their beliefs.