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California Bishops Contest State Ruling on Abortion Coverage

Wally-Gobetz CC

Mark Stricherz - published on 10/03/14

Attorneys argue the Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount cases violate federal law

WASHINGTON — California’s bishops asked the federal government to investigate the state of California’s about-face ruling that two Jesuit colleges must provide abortion coverage in professors’ and staff’s health plans.

On Tuesday, a law firm that represents the California Catholic Conference filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the Department of Health and Human Services. The complaint said the state of California’s decision was in “flagrant disregard” of the civil rights of Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount universities that refused to provide coverage for abortion in faculty and staff’s health insurance policies. 

“Such government action is patently discriminatory and intolerant. It deliberately and purposely tramples upon the civil rights of California citizens who disagree with the position of interest groups that support abortion on demand,” the September 30 letter from Sweeney, Greene and Roberts LLP to Michael Leoz, the regional manager of the office of civil rights division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

On August 22, the director of the California Department of Managed Health Care told seven health insurance companies that their policies on the state’s health insurance plan must cover abortion. “All health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” Director Michelle Rouillard wrote in a letter to the health insurers. Earlier, the California agency said the two Jesuit colleges would be able to refuse to cover abortion services in its faculty and staff health plans.

Spokespersons for both Jesuit colleges have said the universities will comply with the state’s ruling, according to multiple press reports.

Attorneys for the California bishops argue that the state of California’s ruling violates federal law. They cited the Weldon Amendment of 2004 that prohibits giving federal money to government at any level that discriminates against institutions or individuals that provide abortion coverage. According to HHS’s website, the text of the legislation says that “(n)one of the funds made available in this Act may be made available to a federal agency or program, or to a state or local government, if such agency, program, or government subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.”

The amendment, named after Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), was attached to the 2005 fiscal year federal budget for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services and has not been rescinded. The state of California could forfeit billions in annual federal funding from the Labor-HHS-Education budget if the Weldon Amendment is enforced, according to Douglas Johnson, legislative counsel for the National Right to Life Committee. California received $89.5 billion in federal funding from the Labor-HHS budget this year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Johnson expressed skepticism that the Obama administration would intervene in the dispute between the State of California and the California Catholic Conference. “The problem is we have an administration that only enforces the laws it agrees with,” Johnson said. The Obama administration is under fire for allowing five state health exchanges to offer no health policies that do not cover abortion or abortion services. The Obama administration has declined comment on the case.

Spokespersons for "pro-choice" organizations have said the two Catholic, Jesuit colleges can get around the state of California’s requirement by providing health plans not on California’s health exchange. Johnson threw cold water on the idea. “That’d be discrimination against the schools,” he said.

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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