Religious liberty lawsuit challenges Illinois abortion insurance mandate

by Diana Chandler, posted Thursday, June 11, 2020 (one month ago)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (BP) -- The Illinois Baptist State Association (IBSA) is challenging a 2019 state law requiring employee health insurance plans to cover abortions, saying the mandate violates freedom of religion and conscience.

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The IBSA is among three plaintiffs in a lawsuit the nonprofit Thomas More Society filed Wednesday (June 10) in Sangamon County Circuit Court challenging the Illinois Reproductive Health Act's abortion coverage mandate.

IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said the lawsuit is important to both the IBSA and churches in the state.

"The lawsuit states that our deeply held beliefs oppose abortion and, as an organization with religious beliefs, we should not be compelled to provide abortion coverage for our employees," Adams said. "It's just amazing to us that this could be passed as a law. So we asked basically for relief or for exception from being required to provide abortion coverage for our employees, and by extension the churches that are a member of our association."

The Illinois case comes as the LittleSisters of the Poor Roman Catholic order awaits a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a challenge to contraceptive coverage mandates in California and Pennsylvania. The High Court, which heard case arguments telephonically on May 6, is expected to issue a decision in late June.

The Illinois Reproductive Health Act, passed in May 2019, requires every health insurance plan in the state that provides pregnancy coverage to also cover elective chemical and surgical abortions, without exception, according to Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel of the Thomas More Society.

"This forced coverage of abortion is a blatant violation of the religious and conscience rights of Illinoisans," Breen said in a press release announcing the complaint. "While the secular forces behind this mandate often erroneously object to any influence of religion on the state, here they had no hesitation in wielding state power against our sincerely held, common-sense religious beliefs, which compel us to avoid paying for health insurance coverage of abortion."

Breen cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. decision, which granted Hobby Lobby a religious exemption to the Health and Human Services' (HHS) contraception and abortion mandate. Part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the mandate required employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives including those that cause abortions, although it exempted churches. In 2017, HHS broadened exemptions to the mandate to include nonprofits.

More than 90 religious nonprofits have objected to the federal mandate. Little Sisters of the Poor won an exemption to the mandate in 2016, and GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention won an exemption in 2018. Months later, the Trump administration issued executive orders guaranteeing religious and freedom of conscience exemptions to the federal rule.

Breen said the Illinois law also violates existing state laws, including the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. He is asking Illinois to declare the abortion mandate unlawful, and seeks an injunction prohibiting its enforcement.

"Governor [J.B.] Pritzker and his administration have run roughshod over the religious freedoms of Illinoisans, from shuttering churches during COVID-19, to forcing people of faith to pay for elective abortions," Breen said. "The people of Illinois shouldn't have to sue to have their fundamental religious rights recognized, but just as we succeeded in reopening our state's churches through vigorous court actions, we will fight this abortion insurance mandate until it is reversed."

Joining the IBSA as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Richard Mantoan, a dentist and owner of Southland Smiles, a dental practice in Flossmoor, Ill.; and freight company Rock River Cartage (Sterling, Ill.) and its owner Curt House.

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor.
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