‘Bella Health’ Is a Milestone Victory for Religious Freedom

The district court’s decision in the Bella Health case clarifies that the government must meet the highest standard of legal accountability when it knowingly burdens religious freedom

Bella Health + Wellness in Englewood, Colorado
Bella Health + Wellness in Englewood, Colorado (photo: Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA / CNA)

A Colorado district court’s recent opinion may be religious freedom’s most significant victory this fall. 

Last Spring, Colorado outlawed the provision of abortion pill reversal services. The new law was particularly targeted at medical clinics like Bella Health and Wellness, a Catholic medical clinic in suburban Denver founded in 2014 to provide “faith-based, life-affirming” health care to women in need. With “guidance and blessings” from Archbishop Samuel Aquila and the Archdiocese of Denver — and the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a chapel adjoining its main lobby — Bella Health has long offered abortion pill reversal services as part of its religious mission.

Working with public interest firm Becket, Bella Health challenged the Colorado law as a violation of the clinic’s religious freedom. Bella Health also asked for an injunction — a special court order — preventing Colorado from enforcing the law while the case proceeds. 

The Colorado district court issued the injunction, on the basis that Bella Health will likely win this lawsuit. 

This outcome is a great win for religious freedom, particularly because of why and how the court reached its conclusion.

The district court’s decision answered an important question that courts had not clearly addressed in the past. This question was whether (and to what extent) the First Amendment holds the government accountable when it enacts a law knowing that the law will predominantly burden religious activities. 

The United States Supreme Court has already found that the First Amendment holds the government to the highest legal standard of accountability, called “strict scrutiny,” in situations similar to Bella Health. These cases involved laws that (1) treat secular activities more favorably than similar religious activities; (2) burden religion but allow the government to make exceptions, or (3) target religious activity simply because it is religious.

But a gray area existed in situations where a law predominantly burdened religious activity but did not fit into the previous three categories. Supreme Court cases suggested the First Amendment would require government accountability for such laws, but the question was never directly answered. 

The district court’s decision in Bella Health clarifies that the government must meet the highest standard of legal accountability in these situations where the government enacts a regulation or law knowing it will predominately burden religious activity. The opinion should guide both judges and advocates for religious freedom moving forward. 

The court’s decision also reemphasized how important it is for faith-based nonprofits to legally establish their religious identities. Before the court even addressed the religious freedom questions, the court evaluated whether Bella Health is a religious organization eligible for such protections in the first instance. The court looked at Bella Health’s Articles of Incorporation, particularly the purpose statement. The court also looked at documents signed by employees and volunteers. These documents explained the clinic’s religious mission and clearly connected the clinic’s religious beliefs with its activities. Accordingly, the court concluded that Bella was indeed a religious organization entitled to First Amendment protections, so the case proceeded. 

Faith-based nonprofits and friends of religious freedom should use Bella Health to guide advocacy for more robust religious freedom protections and greater government accountability for laws burdening this freedom. Bella Health also reminds faith-based nonprofits and their leaders to revisit their organizing documents and policies and ensure their religious freedom is clearly established in writing. Doing so will maximize the impact of this important religious freedom victory.

Mary Margaret Beecher is the Vice President and Executive Director of Napa Legal.