A California rule to require abortion coverage in health care plans now faces scrutiny from federal officials who say it violates the law. The controversial rule was a reaction to two Jesuit universities’ removal of abortion coverage, prompting Planned Parenthood and others to lobby state officials to block the effort.

“In 2013, Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University, two religiously affiliated universities in California, implemented changes to their employee health care plans to no longer provide elective abortion coverage,” the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights said in its Jan. 24 notice of violation to the State of California.

“Abortion providers and advocacy groups, including Planned Parenthood, learned of this development and pressured (California’s Department of Managed Health Care) to not only reverse its decision to allow the coverage changes, but also to make elective abortion coverage mandatory for all health care plans falling under (the department’s) jurisdiction,” the notice continued.

The 2014 California rules mandating abortion in health care plans were a response to a “pressure campaign,” the notice said. The HHS office ruled that these rules violated the Weldon Amendment, which bars federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against healthcare entities, including health insurance plans, that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.

James G. Hanink, a philosophy professor who taught at Loyola Marymount University from 1976 to 2015, had discovered the abortion coverage in his employee health plan in the summer of 2013. Soon after, the university planned to drop the coverage.

“When LMU announced that it had dropped the abortion coverage, I thought that the school could still, if the light was shining on it, act on principle,” Hanink told CNA Feb. 20.

The health plan changes to remove abortion coverage initially won approval from state officials. However, the changes prompted significant protests from some faculty as well as lobbying from abortion advocates. After California mandated abortion coverage in health plans, the universities complied—despite Catholic teaching against cooperation with the provision of abortion.

Hanink lamented the continued coverage of abortion in Loyola Marymount University’s health plan. He said the university should again work to drop abortion coverage if federal officials bring an end to California’s ban on abortion-free health care plans.

“LMU should act in favor of human rights. Doing so, moreover, could help rebuild the badly tarnished Jesuit legacy,” said Hanink, whose scholarly focuses include the philosophical aspects of abortion, the personhood of the unborn human being, and the work of Jacques Maritain.

Hanink backed the Weldon Amendment action.

“Insofar as the action is effective, I strongly support it,” he told CNA. “I doubt, though, that it will be effective. State leadership is locked into pro-abortion policies. Litigation will be endless.”

However, Hanink was also sceptical towards his former employer’s actions.

“What LMU does has largely been a matter of public relations. In Southern California ‘the public’ is largely secular. It sees abortion coverage as a positive thing. LMU pretty much caves in.”

CNA contacted Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Virginia-based Cardinal Newman Society, said the Weldon Amendment action against California was “very encouraging.”

“The California mandate was a brazen violation in need of enforcement, but pro-abortion politics got in the way. Without the Trump administration’s leadership on this, we would have never seen action,” said Reilly, whose organization focuses on strengthening Catholic fidelity in education.

“Abortion is not healthcare, and it certainly has no place in truly Catholic education,” he told CNA Feb. 21. “This is a mandate that no Catholic college should have obeyed. They should have fought the mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. But certainly, if the mandate is repealed, no faithful Catholic college should provide abortion coverage voluntarily.”

In 2013, Hanink told the National Catholic Register he thought “bureaucratic incompetence” was behind the inclusion of abortion coverage. The university had dropped the coverage in 1988 but it somehow returned to the health plan before 2013.

When California officials in 2014 required health plans to cover abortions, their mandate was so broad it did not exempt churches and religious communities.

In last month’s notice, federal authorities sided with complaints from two groups, Skyline Wesleyan Church of La Mesa and the Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit. Both had objected to being forced to cover abortions.

The HHS Office of Civil Rights estimated that California’s abortion coverage mandate wrongly affected at least 35 employer groups serving over 28,000 enrollees, including 13 groups that met California’s definition of “religious employer.” It gave the state of California 30 days to comply with federal law, or face limits on federal HHS funds.

Some California authorities, like Gov. Gavin Newsom, voiced defiance.

“Despite a federal opinion four years ago confirming California’s compliance with the Weldon Amendment, the Trump Administration would rather rile up its base to score cheap political points and risk access to care for millions than do what’s right,” he said. “California will continue to protect a woman’s right to choose, and we won’t back down from defending reproductive freedom for everybody — full stop.”

In June 2016, Obama Administration officials rejected the California Catholic Conference’s federal complaint against the mandate. The HHS Office for Civil Rights said it found no violation of the Weldon Amendment.

At that time, leaders with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the ruling was “contrary to the plain meaning of the law.” They said it was “shocking” that the federal government allowed California to force all employers, including churches, to fund and facilitate elective abortions.

The effort to remove abortion coverage from university health plans sparked division at the Catholic universities, the National Catholic Register reported in September 2013. A group of faculty members wrote to then-president David Burcham and then-chair of the board of trustees Kathleen Aikenhead objecting to the removal.

“LMU can either be a great American Catholic university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions or it can be an institution that demands obedience to and conformity with Catholic doctrine; it cannot be both,” they said.

In 2013 the Santa Clara University chapter of the American Association of University Professors responded to the decision to drop abortion coverage, alleging that the decision “caused widespread concern on campus about the limitation of women's rights and the failure to follow established governance procedure.”

“The campus chapter was active in facilitating a campus response to the decision, including coordinating a special meeting of the Faculty Senate to consider a course of action,” the chapter’s website said.

Santa Clara University faculty voiced their rejection of the changes to the health care plan by a vote of 215 to 89 in December 2013, the California Lawyer magazine reported. Before the policy was revised in 2013, Santa Clara’s abortion coverage also applied to dependents of faculty and staff.

Reilly lamented the mindset among some faculty at Catholic schools.

“Bad actors within Jesuit universities are as much to blame for the California mandate as are state legislators, and Catholic families should take note of that when choosing a college,” he charged. “I wouldn’t want my tuition money paying for someone’s abortion coverage.”

“Pray for the conversion of hearts at these universities,” he told CNA. “Sadly, people who embrace gender ideology and the contraceptive mentality have a lock on the leadership of many large Catholic universities, where Catholic identity has steadily declined.”

Christopher Kaczor, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount, told CNA in August 2014 that California government officials’ scrutiny of abortion coverage in health plans was hindering Catholic colleges’ ability to be consistently Catholic.

“A Catholic university, if it is to retain its identity, must be distinctive in its fidelity to fundamental truths,” he said. Kaczor cited the Society of Jesus’ 2003 document “Standing for the Unborn,” saying that “the defense of human life prior to birth is a justice issue.”

Reilly saw some promise in the appointment of federal judges who tend to favor religious freedom.

“The political threat to Catholic education is enormous today, but our short-term hope rests with the courts, and our long-term hope depends on Catholic education itself, to form a new generation of virtuous leaders who will change the culture,” he said.

Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Feb. 18 that the Missionary Guadalupanas sisters and the Catholic conference do not aim to start or continue a “culture war” or to revoke California’s federal funding. Rather, they just want their beliefs respected and a return to policy that allows abortion-free health plans.

“We’re interested in simply rolling back to the status quo that existed prior to 2014,” Eckery said.