The Obama administration has rejected a challenge to the State of California’s requirement that health care plans include abortion coverage. A major federal budget amendment intended to protect abortion foes does not apply, it ruled.

Leaders with the U.S. bishops’ conference said it was “shocking” that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allowed the State of California to force all employers, including churches, to fund and facilitate elective abortions.

“Even those who disagree on the issue of life should be able to respect the conscience rights of those who wish not to be involved in supporting abortion,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said June 21.

The cardinal chairs the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, while the archbishop chairs the conference’s ad hoc religious freedom committee.

California’s mandatory abortion coverage rule responded to the efforts of two Catholic universities, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University, which had sought health care plans that did not include elective abortion coverage. However, some faculty members objected to the exclusion of the coverage and their allies sought state intervention.

In August 2014 California’s Department of Managed Health Care ruled that the plans must cover the procedure. 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.”

The insurers and the universities agreed to comply with the state’s requirements, the Los Angeles Times reports. However, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Life Legal Defense Foundation and the Catholic Bishops of California filed several federal legal complaints against the rule. The complaints charged that the state rule discriminated against those who object to abortion.

The complaints cited the Weldon Amendment, first passed in 2005. It bars federal funds to state or local governments if they discriminate against institutional or individual healthcare entities that decline to pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions. The amendment defines healthcare entities as individual physicians or health care professionals, a hospital, “a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility, organization or plan.”

In response to the complaints, Jocelyn Samuels, director of the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said it “found no violation of the Weldon Amendment and is closing this matter without further action.”

The civil rights office ruled that the complaining entities are not “healthcare entities” that object to abortion. The seven health insurance firms involved themselves have no objections to providing abortion coverage.

Samuels’ letter added that the civil rights office’s approach avoids “a potentially unconstitutional application” of the Weldon Amendment. It cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, that said conditions attached to federal funds under the Affordable Care Act were so coercive that they deprived states of meaningful choice.

The U.S. bishops said the ruling was “contrary to the plain meaning of the law.”

A spokesman for the Catholic conference of California said that forcing an objecting faith-based organization to pay for abortion violates the free exercise of religion.

“Forcing organizations and individuals to violate their religious convictions is a threat to fundamental human liberties,” Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, said June 22.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said the Weldon Amendment in fact protects against “state-imposed abortion mandates.”

“This decision illustrates the far reaches of Obama’s radical pro-abortion ideology — forcing churches and communities of faith that have pro-life convictions to participate in and pay for a practice that dismembers and chemically poisons unborn children,” he charged.

“Congress must not let this discrimination stand,” Rep. Smith continued. “We must take this issue out of the hands of the Obama Administration by moving enforcement of current conscience protections to the courts. Congress needs to enact legislation so churches and other victims have a ‘private right of action’ so they can have their day in court.”

Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori called on Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act, saying this would “stop further discrimination against people of faith and against all who respect unborn human life.”

Dolejsi said the state rule is “clearly discrimination” and the Catholic conference will continue to advocate for relief.

At the time the California Catholic Conference filed its complaint, Bishop Robert McElroy said Catholic beliefs about life and human dignity “animate and shape our Catholic ministries.”

“It’s why we oppose abortion, but it is also why Catholic schools provide education, Catholic hospitals care for the poor and vulnerable and why Catholic social services provide assistance to people and families in need,” he said. “It goes to the core of our moral beliefs.”

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