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Appeals court reinstates church's lawsuit against Washington state abortion coverage mandate

Church's inability to get abortion-free health plan after law took effect is an "injury," 9th Circuit agrees.

Updated: July 22, 2021 - 4:51pm

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A federal appeals court Thursday resurrected a church's lawsuit against Washington state's no-exceptions abortion mandate in health plans, agreeing that losing its abortion-free health plan was an "injury in fact that is fairly traceable" to the law.

During oral argument earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals signaled its skepticism of the state's assertion that SB 6219 didn't cause Cedar Park Assembly of God to lose its plan.

The law on its face offers no religious exemptions for purchasers of health plans, Judge Richard Clifton said at the time, characterizing state officials as saying "our fingerprints aren't on the murder weapon."

The only way to get out of abortion coverage is by choosing a plan without maternity coverage.

Kaiser Permanente "reasonably understood the plain language" of the law as banning it from offering any plan that did not cover abortion, "and it acted accordingly when it removed the restrictions from Cedar Park’s health plan," Thursday's order states.

While Washington claimed the Seattle-area church could have obtained abortion-free plans from other insurers – religious entities that have an exception to the abortion mandate – "there is no evidence in the the record clearly demonstrating" Cedar Park could find "acceptable coverage" when it sued, the order also reads.

"It is irrelevant that Kaiser Permanente erroneously provided Cedar Park with a health insurance policy that covered abortion services until this error was detected and corrected," the panel said, responding to the state's argument that the insurer itself – not the law – required the church to pay for abortion coverage.

"Washington state has no legal authority to force places of worship to fund abortions and violate their constitutional rights, as well as their religious beliefs," John Bursch, the Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer representing the church, said in a press release

The case now goes back to the federal district court for further proceedings.

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