A California church is challenging a state mandate that requires elective abortion coverage in its health insurance plans.

The church’s pastor objects that the mandate violates religious freedom and treats the killing of innocent human life as health care.

“We are standing against the government’s imposed evil to participate in the killing of innocent babies through our health insurance plans,” Jim Garlow, senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in La Mesa, Calif., told CNA. “This is unacceptable and goes against the very fiber of our Christian beliefs.”

Pastor Garlow has been a pastor at the church for more than 20 years.

“The government has no right to dictate anything that violates our conscience or our beliefs,” he said.

“Our Founding Fathers established constitutional freedoms so that individuals can express their religious beliefs in the public square. They also wanted to ensure that the government could not intrude in the deeply held convictions of all Americans or of any church.”

In August 2014, California’s Department of Managed Health Care sent a letter to seven insurance companies stating that they are required to include elective abortions in their health plans, with no religious exceptions.

The letter was in response to actions from two Catholic universities, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University. They chose to exclude elective abortion from their employee insurance policies because of their opposition to abortion.

Last week, Skyline Wesleyan Church filed a lawsuit against the health care department. The church charged it was being forced to comply with the mandate and violate its religious beliefs.

Garlow’s pro-life convictions are deeply rooted in his Christian faith and in his family. He has four adopted children. His oldest adopted daughter, Janie, was born from a gang rape.

He recounted his daughter’s testimony at a public hearing opposing a county hospital’s decision to start performing abortions. Janie, then 12 years old, said, “I may have been an unwanted pregnancy, but I am a wanted child.”

Garlow said this helped inspire him to stand up for his convictions.

“Janie stood up for truth that day and as followers of Christ, we are called to stand for truth,” Garlow said. “Skyline Wesleyan Church believes in standing up for biblical truth. This is part of our DNA.”

According to California’s health care department, elective abortions constitute “basic health care” and are on an equal footing with all other maternity services. Its August 2014 letter claimed the mandate is supported by California law.

A 1975 state health care law and the California constitution, it said, prohibits health plans “from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy.”

“Thus, all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” the letter stated.

Garlow said he disagrees with the state’s definition of health care.

“The Department of Managed Health Care believes providing elective abortions is part of basic health care. They couldn’t be further from the truth,” Garlow said.

“When my wife battled cancer, her treatments were legitimate and necessary for health care. Violently ripping an innocent child from its mother’s womb is not health care — but the exact opposite,” he said.

“Killing innocent life is destructive and can never be considered a health benefit,” Garlow emphasized.

The health care department established the mandate without any public comment or notice, the process normally required by California law.

Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, represents Skyline Wesleyan Church in the lawsuit. He charged that the department avoided this process because it knew it would not get public approval if it followed legal protocol.

“The department went about this the wrong way and did not use the proper public regulation process,” Stanley told CNA. “They rammed this through because they knew there would be public outcry — especially among religious organizations and churches.”

Stanley charged that the action is government overreach that threatens the religious integrity of churches.

“The government has no business requiring churches to go against their sincerely held beliefs and participate in the killing of innocent human life by providing elective abortion in their health insurance plans,” he said.

“Not only is this unprecedented, it is unconstitutional and goes against California law,” Stanley said.  

Alliance Defending Freedom also represents three other California churches in a similar federal lawsuit filed last year.

Skyline Wesleyan Church is standing by Garlow and the lawsuit. William Gifley, senior vice chairman of the board for the church for the past 13 years, said there is a lot at stake.

“The basic fundamental right to freely exercise our faith and our religion is at stake,” Gifley told CNA. “This is a violation of the religious freedom of churches.”

“It is unconscionable for the government to presume to tell people of faith and churches how their insurance dollars should be spent,” he said.

“Forcing payment of abortion is wrong. Life begins at conception and this is a sacred line that the government should never cross.”

Garlow agreed. He said adoption is a viable alternative for women with unwanted pregnancies.

“As a father of four beautiful adopted children, I cannot say how proud I am of these women who chose not to violently end the lives of these innocent children in their womb,” he said. “That took courage and sacrifice. And if they had not done that, my wife and I would not have been able to raise these amazing gifts of God.”

The pastor said the government needs to redirect its efforts.

“There are several million people longing to adopt a child, and yet here we have a government that is coercing its citizenry to participate in the killing of innocent life — life that is so coveted by God and by individuals who want the opportunity to love and raise these children like my wife and I did,” Garlow said.

“The government should spend more time encouraging adoption rather than coercing churches to participate in abortion.” Photo credit: Minutius Hora via www.shutterstock.com