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Catholic Television Network|Challenges Contraception Mandate

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) - A Catholic television network claims rules on contraception coverage in President Obama's Affordable Care Act unconstitutionally require it to subsidize contraception and sterilization coverage for its employees.

In a federal lawsuit, Eternal Word Television Network claims the law forces it to "fund, promote and assist others to acquire services which EWTN believes involve gravely immoral practices, including the destruction of innocent human life."

The network sued the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of the Treasury and the departments' secretaries.

Founded in 1981, Irondale, Ala.-based EWTN calls itself "the largest Catholic media network in the world," providing programs to more than 217 million homes globally. Its TV and radio stations are tailored to a Catholic audience.

The network says the Department of Health and Human Services' preventive care mandate, is part of the 2010 health-care reform, forces it to offer employees coverage for contraception and sterilization procedures. Calling the rule "a deliberate attack by the defendants on the religious beliefs of EWTN and millions of other Americans," the network claims the services contradict its Catholic beliefs and those of its audience and donors.

"Based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, and its own deeply held beliefs, EWTN does not believe that contraception, sterilization, or abortion are properly understood to constitute medicine, health care, or a means of providing for the well being of persons," the complaint states. "Indeed, EWTN believes these procedures involve gravely immoral practices, including the intentional destruction of innocent human life.

"With full knowledge of these beliefs, defendants issued an administrative rule ('the mandate') that not only forces EWTN to treat contraception, sterilization, abortion, and related education and counseling as health care, but that also subverts the expression of EWTN's religious beliefs, and the beliefs of millions of other Americans, by forcing EWTN to fund, promote, and assist others to acquire services which EWTN believes involve gravely immoral practices, including the destruction of innocent human life.

"The mandate unconstitutionally coerces EWTN to violate its deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties. The mandate also forces EWTN to fund government-dictated speech that is directly at odds with its own speech and religious teachings. Having to pay a fine to the taxing authorities for the privilege of practicing one's religion or controlling one's own speech is un-American, unprecedented, and flagrantly unconstitutional.

"The defendants' refusal to accommodate conscience is also highly selective. A patchwork of seemingly arbitrary exemptions from the Affordable Care Act announces that defendants do not believe every insurance plan in the country need cover these services. For instance, defendants have issued thousands of waivers from the Affordable Care Act altogether for groups, such as many large corporations, purely for reasons of commercial convenience. Other exemptions have been awarded based on how old a plan is or how large an employer is. Missing, however, is any exemption for employers whose religious consciences instruct them that certain mandated services are ethically repugnant. In other words, the defendants' pattern of exemptions reveals a massive blind spot for groups exercising their fundamental First Amendment freedoms. ...


"Had EWTN's religious beliefs been obscure or unknown, the defendants' actions might have been an accident. But because the defendants acted with full knowledge of those beliefs, and because they arbitrarily exempt some plans for a wide range of reasons other than religious conviction, the mandate can be interpreted as nothing other than a deliberate attack by the defendants on the religious beliefs of EWTN and millions of other Americans. The defendants have, in sum, intentionally used government power to force religious groups to believe something about the mandated services manifestly contrary to their own religious convictions, and then to act on that coerced belief."

Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which regulates group health plans and health insurance providers, in March 2010.

In July 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Treasury and the Department of Labor published rules requiring providers of group health insurance to cover preventive care for women, including certain contraception and sterilization services, without a co-pay.

The EWTN says the government, through the Institute of Medicine, a private health policy organization, invited "a select number of groups" to make recommendations on the preventive care that should be covered by all health plans, but religious groups and others who oppose coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion were excluded.

The Institute of Medicine recommended that all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, including birth-control pills, contraceptive devices, emergency contraception and sterilization procedures be covered as preventive services. The government adopted the recommendations.

The EWTN says the government failed to consider more than 100,000 comments against the mandate submitted by religious organizations.

The network, which employs 340 people, says it has to choose between cutting its employees' health benefits and violating its religious beliefs.

It could also face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to subsidize contraception and sterilization in its health plans.

"As part of its commitment to Catholic social teaching, EWTN promotes the well-being and health of its employees," the complaint states. "In furtherance of these beliefs, EWTN has striven over the years to provide employee health coverage superior to coverage generally available in the Alabama market.

"Moreover, as part of its religious commitment to the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church, EWTN ensures that its insurance policies do not cover drugs, devices, services or procedures inconsistent with its faith. In particular, EWTN has taken great pains through the years to ensure that its insurance plans do not cover sterilization, contraception or abortion.

"EWTN cannot provide health care insurance covering artificial contraception, sterilization, or abortion, or related education and counseling, without violating its deeply held religious beliefs.

"EWTN cannot provide information or guidance to its employees about other locations at which they can access artificial contraception, sterilization, abortion, or related education and counseling, without violating its deeply held religious beliefs."

What's more, the network says, EWTN exists on donations from the public and it "cannot use donated funds for purposes known to be morally repugnant to its donors and in ways that violate the implicit trust of the purpose of their donations."

The complaint adds: "EWTN has a sincere religious objection to providing coverage for emergency contraceptive drugs such as Plan B and [emergency contraceptive] ella since it believes those drugs could prevent a human embryo, which they understand to include a fertilized egg before it implants in the uterus, from implanting in the wall of the uterus, causing the death of a person."

The network says the regulation, which will affect health plans after Aug. 1, constitutes "government-imposed pressure and coercion on EWTN to change or violate its religious beliefs."

It claims the mandate makes it harder to recruit employees, because of the uncertainty about health insurance coverage.

The network says the mandate includes exemptions for religious employers who primarily hire and serve members of one religious faith and exist to promote religious values, but most religious organizations, including EWTN, fail to meet the narrow criteria.

According to a White House statement, some religious institutions may no longer be required to directly subsidize contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. But the network says the compromise may not apply to EWTN or similar organizations.

It claims that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The network wants the government enjoined from enforcing the mandate.

It is represented by Eric Kniffin with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution, and Colorado Christian University are also challenging the HHS contraception mandate, represented by the Becket Fund.

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