Is California Forcing Churches to Pay for Abortions?

Loyola Marymount University’s Sunken Garden and Sacred Heart Chapel. Photo via Mishigaki via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

Religious groups are battling the state of California over whether employee health insurance plans require them to pay for abortions and some forms of contraception that some find immoral.

So is the state forcing churches to pay for abortions? It depends on who you ask.

The issue gained traction after Michelle Rouillard, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care, sent a letter to Anthem Blue Cross and several other insurance firms in August warning providers that state law requires insurers to not deny woman abortions. “Thus, all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” she wrote.

Rouillard wrote that state law provides an exemption for religious institutions.

“Although health plans are required to cover legal abortions, no individual health care provider, religiously sponsored health carrier, or health care facility may be required by law or contract in any circumstance to participate in the provision of or payment for a specific service if they object to doing so for reason of conscience or religion,” she wrote.

“No person may be discriminated against in employment or professional privileges because of such objection.”

However, two legal groups have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, alleging the California rule puts faith-based organizations in a position to violate their conscience.

Conscience vs. Authority at Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family

The Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service/RNS.

A midpoint report from this month’s Synod of Bishops reveals that Catholic leaders are considering more conciliatory language toward gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried Catholics, and couples who live together before getting married.

Meeting with nearly 200 senior prelates and several dozen lay experts and observers at the Vatican, Pope Francis has deliberately engineered a lively discussion of issues concerning marriage and family life. This assembly, and a follow-up summit in 2015, will help shape the pontiff’s legacy.

Reporters and commentators are producing a flurry of analysis mostly centered on the question of whether the synod portends a change in substance or merely a change in tone. Such is the abiding question of Francis’ papacy.

Yet through these lively debates in Catholic life runs a theme that is as old as the Reformation: the role of individual conscience.

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry, and Choosing Grace

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/

It is an identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. ...Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." 

Five Takeaways From the Hobby Lobby Case

The nine Supreme Court justices, public domain

The nine Supreme Court justices, public domain

Five things to know about one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions of the year:

1. Corporations can’t pray, but they do have religious rights.

Hobby Lobby isn’t a person. It’s a chain of crafts stores owned by a religious family. And though the evangelical Green family objects to parts of the Affordable Care Act’s emergency contraception mandate, it’s not the Greens but the company that writes the check for employees’ health insurance. The first question the justices had to answer was this: Does Hobby Lobby have religious rights? To many Americans, this sounds a little nutty. Does a craft store believe in God?

A majority of the justices held that a closely held company such as Hobby Lobby does have religious rights. The court didn’t apply those rights, however, to publicly held corporations, where owners’ religious beliefs would be hard to discern.

But well before the justices had delivered their verdict on this question, many legal scholars said they wouldn’t be surprised were they to affirm the company’s religious rights. American corporations do have some of the rights and responsibilities we usually associate with people. And in the 2010Citizens United campaign finance case, the justices overturned bans on corporate political spending as a violation of freedom of speech — corporations’ free speech.

What Does the Hobby Lobby Decision Mean?

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam /

Supreme Court Building, Orhan Cam /

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., ruling 5-4 that the arts-and-crafts chain does not have to offer insurance for types of birth control that conflict with company owners’ religious beliefs.

Beyond the specifics of the Hobby Lobby case before them, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious non-profits, may claim religious rights.

Does Monday’s decision mean, however, that the religious beliefs of business owners stand paramount? That they are more important than a female employee’s right to choose from the full array of birth control methods she is promised under the Affordable Care Act? Or that a business owner may invoke his religious rights to deny service to a gay couple?

Not necessarily, legal experts say.


Awaiting Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Ruling, Public Favors Contraception Mandate

Supporters and opponents of ACA’s contraception mandate rallied outside the Supreme Court, March 25. RNS photos by Adelle Banks.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to finally issue its ruling this week in the highly anticipated case of the craft companies vs. Obamacare.

Technically, it’s Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a showdown over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. The core legal question is whether a private company can have religious rights.

But to the general public, this is seen as a showdown between employers — the evangelical Green family behind Hobby Lobby and the Mennonite Hahn familythat owns the Conestoga cabinet company — and the employees’ personal reproductive choices under their insurance.

While conservatives have cast the battle as one for religious freedom, the general public may see it as a showdown over personal health choices.

Both Sides of Contraception Mandate Sound Off

Photo by Joey Longley

Photo by Joey Longley

Today, the Supreme Court heard two cases that have major implications for the intersection of religious liberty and health care in America. While Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius were argued before the Court, hundreds of activists voiced their opinions outside the Court’s chambers.

The Court will decide whom the so-called “contraception mandate” law in the Affordable Care Act applies to. Both of the challengers to this section of the 2010 health law say that providing certain forms of birth control violates their sincerely held religious views. Though there are already exemptions in law for churches and some nonprofits, this case will decide whether for-profit corporations are offered protection under the religious liberty clause of the First Amendment to deny contraception coverage to their employees.

The Women of Faith Factor in 'Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius'

By DangApricot (Own work)  via Wikimedia Commons

By DangApricot (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

As we near the March 25 arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, it can feel as though men have the monopoly on religious activism in America. After all, 38 protestant theologians signed on to an amicus brief suggesting that a business owner’s religious beliefs should dictate the consciences and actions of female employees – none of those theologians were women.

A glance at the past, present, and future of women’s leadership in American religious life, however, shows this simply is not true. Today, as throughout American history, women have fought for their voice in religion, the opportunity to express their faith, and to obtain the same access to religious leadership as their brothers. Just as in other areas of work and life, creating opportunities for women to increase their hand in religious leadership is vital to greater equality and new perspectives in theology, moral activism, and spirituality.

Despite the increase in women in clergy careers over the last 40 years, it has been an uphill battle for women who have changed hearts, minds, and traditions for career opportunities as clergy and religious leaders in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Issues around the “ stained glass ceiling” in clergy careers can range from discouraging congregants who are biased against women clergy to institutional inequalities: men still outnumber women in clergy positions in America, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20.5 percent of self-described clergy were women in 2012. In certain religious traditions — the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox Judaism, for example — women cannot be ordained as clergy or prayer leaders. It is also very rare to find Muslim women leading mixed-gender services.

Hobby Lobby's Steve Green Stands on Faith Against Obamacare Mandate

Steve Green and his wife, Jackie, at a surprise 40th birthday party for Steve. Photo courtesy of Green family/RNS

Once Steve Green sets his path, there’s no turning back.

Not when he and his high school girlfriend, Jackie, totaled their cars playing chicken. “No one turned off,” he said, recalling how he aimed right at her and she just kept coming. A year later, she married him.

Not when he saw no point in college, going directly into his family’s Hobby Lobby craft store business. Green, now 50, rose up from assembling picture frames for “bubble gum money” at age 7 through every job, including cleaning toilets, to president of the $3.3 billion national chain, one of the nation’s largest private companies.

And certainly not now when, he says, the U.S. government is challenging his unshakeable Christian faith and his religious liberty.

Religious Liberty vs. Civil Rights: A Balancing Act

A man exits the Supreme Court building with an American flag after its rulings on same-sex marriage. RNS photo: Adelle M. Banks

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer may have ended the latest controversy in her state by vetoing a “religious freedom” bill that threatened gay men and lesbians, but the nation’s legislatures and courts are just getting started.

While religious liberty remains a “core value” in Arizona, Brewer said Wednesday, “so is non-discrimination.” And therein lies the balancing act that’s at the root of several other disputes.

The answer isn’t simple. Congress and the states often carve out exceptions for religious beliefs. The Supreme Court has consistently made room for religious exercise. And unlike race and gender, sexual orientation is not a protected class — yet.