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Seven California churches have filed a civil rights complaint with the federal Department of Health & Human Services, saying that a new interpretation of California law would violate both federal and state law by requiring insurance coverage for all abortions.

In a letter dated August 22 to president of Anthem Blue Cross in California, Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) Director Shelley Rouillard wrote that some of the insurance companies' “contracts contain language that may discriminate against women by limiting or excluding coverage for termination of pregnancies.”

According to Rouillard, California law “requires the provision of basic health care services,” which she says includes. Likewise, “the California Constitution prohibits health plans from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy.”

“Thus,” says Rouillard, “all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally.”

The letter ordered BlueCross to make the change immediately, which led to the challenge by seven churches, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Loyola Marymount University.

In a response, attorneys for the Life Legal Defense Foundation (LLDF) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said that the state's position was untenable based upon both federal and state law.

“Federal law prevents California from mandating that a health insurance plan include abortion coverage,” the letter says, citing an annual federal appropriations amendment that prevents entities that receive federal funds from engaging in “discrimination that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage for, or refer for abortions.”

The letter notes that the state of California receives “over $40 billion in federal funds.”

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Additionally, ADF/LLDF letter says, the California requirement for abortion coverage “prohibits the state from discriminating against women who choose to terminate a pregnancy, by withholding funding for abortions. This decision does not prohibit private actors such as religious employers from deciding what services its employee health insurance policies will cover.”

“California’s Department of Managed Health Care created this abortion mandate in response to political pressure from the abortion lobby,” Life Legal Defense Foundation Legal Director Catherine Short said. “They would have us believe that, while the legislature exempted these churches from the state’s contraceptive coverage mandate, it nonetheless intended to force them to cover all abortions under the rubric of ‘basic health care.”

Bishop Robert McElroy called the state's decision “coercive and discriminatory action,” saying that the requirement “was directly targeted at Catholic institutions like Santa Clara University, Loyola Marymount University, along with other California employers and citizens. It is a flagrant violation of their civil rights and deepest moral convictions, and is government coercion of the worst kind.”

In a response letter dated September 8, Rouillard wrote that the state “will not reverse its position,” which led to the ADF and LLDF complaint.