The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on July 22 ruled that Cedar Park Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Bothell, Washington, had legal standing to challenge a state law mandating abortion coverage for employees and that a lower court improperly rejected the church’s claim related to the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit affirmed that the Seattle-area church suffered an injury as a result of a 2018 law passed by the Washington state legislature requiring Cedar Park to provide abortion coverage for 185 employees. The church, which has more than 1,200 weekly attendees, also operates a Christian school for 1,600 students, preschoolers through 12th graders.
The suit, Cedar Park v Kreidler, challenged the legality of the state law forcing a church to provide elective abortions and abortifacient contraceptives in its health insurance plan. The complaint contended the law represented an intentional attack on Christians because the bill allowed for no exemptions for houses of worship. Violators face prison time of up to 364 days and fines of up to $100 per plan participant for every day of failure to comply.
“Churches have to be free to operate according to their faith without being threatened by the government,” declares Elissa Graves, ADF legal counsel who specializes in pro-life cases. “The 9th Circuit made it clear that Washington law does injure Cedar Park and other churches that object to providing abortion coverage.”
As a result of the appeals court decision, Cedar Park and ADF can continue the fight back at the district court level. In the meantime, the church is being forced to provide abortion coverage in its employee insurance plan, according to Graves, who has worked with ADF since 2013.
Jay W. Smith has been senior pastor at Cedar Park for six years, although he has belonged to the church his entire life. He met his future wife, Sandy, as a toddler in the church nursery. Jay, whose parents served as deacons at the church, succeeded Joseph Fuiten — Sandy’s father — as senior pastor.
As an unwed pregnant teenager, Sandy fleetingly contemplated abortion, but she then remembered a service in which women tearfully spoke of the remorse they experienced from their abortions.
“I thought about having the abortion and no one would know, but then the sorrow and regret those women experienced flashed before me,” Sandy says. “I knew that was not the way out for me.”
Sandy and Jay, now both 43, decided to marry 25 years ago and keep the baby. Talia Chermak is now a credentialed Assemblies of God minister with her husband, Kyle, at Legacy Church in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. The Smiths have three younger daughters as well.
Fuiten encouraged Jay not to forsake his calling. Smith went on to graduate from Northwest University in 1999 and joined the staff at Cedar Park.
“Society wanted me to think there was no future if I kept that baby,” Sandy says. “But life is God’s idea, even if it is ‘unplanned’ or ‘unwanted.’”
A pro-life ethos permeates Cedar Park. The church partners with a local pregnancy care center supporting women experiencing unplanned pregnancies; sponsors a camp for foster care children; and even operates its own funeral home. Consequently, the notion of the state mandating abortions for employees rankled Smith.
“Directly paying for abortion coverage is as unimaginable to us as putting bullets in a gun we know would be used to end a child’s life,” Smith says. “It is antithetical to everything we preach, teach, and believe.”
The church annually hosts a special prayer service for couples struggling with infertility and has facilitated more than 1,000 adoptions of frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. Every year, church adherents and staff participate in Olympia’s March for Life.
“Sanctity of life is not some vague philosophy to which we owe religious lip service,” Smith says. “It is a vital, driving theme of our theology, our worship services, and our varied ministries.”