Here we go again: California, courts, abortion, Catholics, colleges, covenants, religious liberty

Did you think you’ve heard enough about religious employers, the federal government, the Little Sisters of the Poor and so on to last a lifetime?

Buckle up, because a new battle has begun.

It’s based in California, which is becoming the new Ground Zero on abortion. There, the issue isn’t federal laws, as has been the case previously.

It all began when some faculty at two Catholic institutions in southern California wanted health care plans that included abortion coverage. Here, we’re dealing with state laws; in fact, 50 sets of them. As Bloomberg explains:

... State laws on abortion coverage are governed by a different legal regime than federally mandated contraceptive care. The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars Washington from imposing a "substantial burden" on most religious practice and was at stake in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case as well as the Little Sisters case. But it doesn’t apply to the states.  

That’s the crux right there. All the lawsuits we’ve been hearing about for the past few years (Little Sisters, Hobby Lobby) had to do with the feds. That national angle is just one layer of the wider story.

I’m going to include a few paragraphs from the beginning of a Los Angeles Times story to bring you up to date:

The Obama administration ... rejected a “right of conscience” complaint from anti-abortion groups in California who objected to the state’s requirement that health insurance plans include coverage for elective abortions.
The civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services said it had completed an investigation and dismissed several complaints after concluding California’s policy did not violate a decade-old rule adopted by Congress, known as the Weldon Amendment.
The office said the provision, which protects doctors, nurses, hospitals and other healthcare providers who object to performing abortions, does not extend to health insurance firms that have no moral objection to providing abortion coverage and instead are acting on the request of religious-minded customers.

And that rather interesting Catholic angle in this drama?

The decision upholds a move by the California Department of Managed Care, which notified seven insurance providers in 2014 that state law does not allow them to offer coverage that limits or excludes abortions for some employers. The issue arose when faculty members at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Santa Clara University objected to this limitation in their insurance plans.
The insurers and the universities agreed to comply with the state’s requirement, but several anti-abortion advocates filed a complaint with the federal agency. They cited the Weldon Amendment, which says no federal funds may go to a state that discriminates against a “health care entity that does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.” Sponsors of the measure said it was intended to protect the “right to conscience” for those who have moral objections to abortion.

The Bloomberg story -- which is the best written of all the stories I’m citing here -- spends a lot more ink on the Weldon Amendment that is at the center of this debate:

The uncertainty of the law’s meaning illustrates how baffling the conflict has become over the intricate web of legal principles that surround health-care coverage when it collides with religious values.
The latest example – it’s not yet a legal case -- began with the California Department of Managed Health Care, a state office that says it “protects consumers’ health-care rights and ensures a stable health-care delivery system.” In 2014, the department told seven insurers that under state law, they weren’t allowed to offer coverage excluding abortion to religious organizations unless the organization predominantly employed and served people with its own religious beliefs.
This meant that some religious employers, like churches, could get abortion-free coverage. But Catholic hospitals and universities could not, because they employ and serve lots of non-Catholics.

I often read the comments underneath articles and one commentator for the Bloomberg piece asked (and I paraphrase): “Why does California want to pick this fight? They know it will end up in court.”

Why indeed? According to a 2014 story in the National Catholic Reporter, this has been going on for more than two years. That story revealed that seven churches were also notified by the state that they had to provide abortion coverage, and it was mostly non-Catholic faculty at these two universities who were demanding abortion coverage.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve brought up again and again the fact that religious schools have covenants whereby those who attend them and those who teach and work at them agree to live according to the doctrines affirmed by that institution. We are talking about doctrinally defined voluntary associations that have been protected -- on the left and right -- by the First Amendment.

Why this is never brought up in any article I ever read on this topic just astounds me. When the New York Times did an article on the split over abortion at Loyola Marymount College, the reporter never asked whether the non-Catholic faculty -- or the Catholics, for that matter -- had ever signed an agreement saying they would adhere (at least publicly) to the doctrine of the church that runs this university.

Lots of religious universities have such lifestyle covenants (here is one example) or agreements. We’ve covered such agreements when it comes to Catholic high schools in the San Francisco Catholic archdiocese, so why can't reporters do some Googling to get more background on the debate?

More typically, reporters at secular papers have allowed the religious press to do the heavy lifting. Here is how a Catholic wire service covered the issue, so obviously this has been brewing awhile and a big fight is in the offing.

I’d give the coverage on this –- so far –- a B average in the hope there’s more that will be done. After looking at this story on Santa Clara University, I saw some amazing faculty quotes alleging that the staff were not members of a Catholic parish, but a large corporation. What about the Catholic mission and origins of this place did they fail to understand? Why aren’t reporters asking these folks why they chose to work at a place that is on a collision course with their lifestyles?

Also, there common-sense questions I wish media would ask. There are a lot of procedures other than abortion that aren’t covered by some health/dental insurance. One of them is braces for kids’ teeth. No company I know of completely insures this even though millions of people –- most kids -– need them. But are we suing employers to get this benefit? Nope. Why is only abortion fodder for lawsuits? Because there's a lot more deep pockets out there willing to make abortion more available then, say, orthodontic care

I might add this is not the only abortion-related news happening in the Golden State. California is also seeking to make crisis pregnancy clinics (which oppose abortion) post instructions telling women where they can get abortions. We've reported in the past how that strategy has not worked well in other states, so why is California trying to re-invent that wheel?

If nothing else, California state officials must have lots of money to throw at lawyers. Now that the debate has been racheted up, I’m hoping more media will weigh on this fight and do some more digging on its origins. So far, it’s been vastly underreported. 

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