A Catholic cable television network based in the United States has today filed a lawsuit against Kathleen Sebelius
, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a bid to halt the Obama administration's contraception mandate.
The Eternal Word Television Network, based in Irondale, Alabama, announced it was seeking to have a court declare the federal rule unconstitutional.
The lawsuit, which names Sebelius and other federal agencies as defendants, is the first to have come from a lay Catholic organization. North Carolina’s Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University, based in Denver, have also both filed suits. All three are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest law firm.
|Mother Mary Angelica founded the Eternal Word TV Network in 1981.
Sibelius announced Jan. 20 that the mandate would force all health-care agencies and institutions to pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and certain kinds of abortifacient drug. There is no religious exemption, meaning church-affiliated social agencies, hospitals and universities would all be affected.
The move has caused an outcry from U.S. Catholic bishops and other religious leaders. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the mandate “egregiously unfair” and a policy that “cuts against the grain of what it means to be American.”
EWTN’s president and CEO Michael Warsaw expressed regret at the necessity of taking legal action to defend the network’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, but he said the network “had no other option.”
“Under the HHS mandate, EWTN is being forced by the government to make a choice,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Warsaw also noted that not only Catholic organizations are affected: virtually all employers who morally object to such services will still be required to provide them — whether they run nonprofit, explicitly Catholic organizations like EWTN, or mainstream businesses like restaurants or corporations.
“Catholic institutions may be especially hard hit because their religious mission embraces a broad swath of society — anyone in need, irrespective of creed,” he said. But he also expressed concern regarding the conscience rights of individual believers. “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,” said Warsaw.
The federal rule not only requires the inclusion of services that the church deems morally illicit; it also directs employers to facilitate the use of those services.
“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,” said Warsaw.
“There is no question that this mandate violates our First Amendment rights. This is a moment when EWTN, as a Catholic organization, has to step up and say that enough is enough. Our hope is that our lawsuit does just that.”
The television network could face $600,000 in penalties each year for refusing to underwrite these services, according to the Becket Fund.
In a Feb. 9 report in the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register, Mark Rienzi, a senior attorney for the Becket Fund, said EWTN’s lawsuit is important because the network is not a church.
“They are a lay-run organization, and they have a right to live by and practice their faith and project the messages they want to project,” he said. “For the government to say that only churches have religious liberty — but individuals do not — is contrary to what the First Amendment is all about.”
Rienzi stressed that the mandate affects not only schools, but every religious owner in the country. “The administration has given no indication that it has considered people who happen to run businesses and have religious objections to paying for abortions,” he said.
Addressing U.S. bishops shortly before the HHS decision last month, Pope Benedict XVI warned of “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
He said it was "imperative” that American Catholics come to realize the “grave threats” presented by a “radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”
Such threats, he added, are not just directed against the Christian faith, “but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God."
Founded in 1980 by Mother Mary Angelica, an American nun, EWTN is reputed to reach more than 148 million homes worldwide.
Edward Pentin also writes for the National Catholic Register which is owned by EWTN.
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