By Benjamin Mann
Catholic media network EWTN sued the federal government Feb. 9, challenging the Obama administration’s rule requiring many religious ministries to subsidize contraception and sterilization in their health plans.
“We had no other option but to take this to the courts,” EWTN President and CEO Michael Warsaw said in an announcement about the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday. “There is no question that this mandate violates our First Amendment rights.”
“Under the HHS mandate, EWTN is being forced by the government to make a choice,” Warsaw explained. “Either we provide employees coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs and violate our conscience or offer our employees and their families no health insurance coverage at all. Neither of those choices is acceptable.”
Senior attorneys at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed the suit on behalf of the media network, against the Department of Health and Human Services, department secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other government agencies involved with the federal contraception mandate.
Finalized Jan. 20, 2012 as part of federal health care reform, the mandate forces all employers – except those that primarily hire and serve members of one religious faith and exist for the sake of promoting religious values – to buy insurance coverage that will offer sterilization and contraception without a co-pay.
Because EWTN serves not only Catholics but the public at large, the network would not qualify for the religious exemption offered by Secretary Sebelius.
At least one of the mandate’s required drugs, the emergency contraceptive “Ella,” has the potential to cause an early-stage abortion.
The U.S. Catholic bishops have denounced the rule that “forces religious employers and schools to sponsor and subsidize coverage that violates their beliefs, and forces religious employees and students to purchase coverage that violates their beliefs.”
In his announcement of the lawsuit, Warsaw said the federal contraception mandate was “particularly hard on Catholics, because Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, schools, social service agencies, media outlets and others, serve people regardless of their religious beliefs.”
But he made it clear that the federal rule should concern people of all beliefs.
“We are taking this action to defend not only ourselves but also to protect other institutions – Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and secular – from having this mandate imposed upon them.”
Along with the public opposition from over 160 U.S. Catholic bishops, the rule has also drawn opposition from the Eastern Orthodox churches as well as Protestant and Orthodox Jewish leaders.
Meanwhile, Secretary Sebelius has given non-exempt religious institutions an extra year to comply with the “preventive services” mandate. During this time, however, these religious employers must refer their staff to providers of the same drugs and devices.
Warsaw pointed out that this alternative, proposed as a temporary accommodation, also trampled EWTN’s conscience rights.
“The government is forcing EWTN, first, to inform its employees about how to get contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs, a concept known as forced speech.”
“To make the matter worse, the government then will force EWTN to use its donors’ funds to pay for these same morally objectionable procedures or to pay for the huge fines it will levy against us if we fail to provide health care insurance.”
If the administration’s rule remains in place, the media network could eventually face fines of over $600,000 annually for refusing to underwrite policies contradicting its beliefs.
“This is a moment when EWTN, as a Catholic organization, has to step up and say that enough is enough,” the network’s president and CEO declared.
Health and Human Services’ rule is also facing legal challenges from Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution, and from the interdenominational Colorado Christian University.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing all three ministries in their lawsuits. Lawyers from the fund recently won a 9-0 victory against the federal government in a Supreme Court case regarding the self-governance of a Lutheran church and school.
EWTN is providing further information about the mandate and its lawsuit at www.ewtn.com/hhsmandate.