By Catholic News Service
ATLANTA – The head of the Eternal Word Television Network said Feb. 18 that a federal appeals court ruling handed down earlier that day “in effect” orders the Catholic global network “to violate its religious beliefs and comply” with the federal contraceptive mandate or “pay massive fines to the IRS.”
“We are extremely disappointed that the court has refused to protect our religious freedom,” Michael P. Warsaw, EWTN chairman and CEO, said in a statement.
In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the Health and Human Services mandate that is part of the federal health care law.
In one decision, the panel ruled on two cases. One was filed by EWTN, based in Irondale, Alabama, and the other was filed by Catholic entities in Georgia – the Atlanta Archdiocese, Catholic Education of North Georgia Inc. and the Savannah Diocese.
The majority opinion rejected the Catholic organizations’ argument that complying with a requirement it opposes on moral grounds violates its freedom of religion. The decision also dismissed the groups’ position that they would be unduly burdened by the Obama administration’s “work-around” whereby they could notify HHS in writing of their religious objections and a third-party administrator would be told by the government to provide the objectionable coverage at no charge to employees.
However, the ruling also said the HHS mandate should not be enforced until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue. The high court will hear oral arguments March 23 in Zubik v. Burwell. The case groups together several plaintiffs, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. A ruling from the court is not likely until late spring.
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees’ artificial birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage. Only religious employers who fit narrowly drawn criteria are exempt.
Catholic and other employers who are not exempt also argue that by complying with the “work-around” they are still involved in coverage they oppose.
Writing for the majority, Judge Jill Pryor of the 11th Circuit said that Congress included the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act “to improve women’s health and public health generally.”
“There is no evidence whatsoever that the mandate was enacted in an attempt to restrict religious exercise,” she said.
Judge Gerald Tjoflat, in a strongly worded dissent, said the two-judge majority was running “roughshod over the sincerely held religious objections” of the plaintiffs.
“At bottom, the majority’s reasoning takes aim at the heart of RFRA itself,” he said. Tjoflat was referring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.
Lori Windham, senior counsel of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead attorney on the case, said the 2-1 decision is wrong, because “rather than provide these drugs and devices through its own exchanges, our government wants to punish EWTN for practicing its faith.”
In an earlier statement, Emily Hardman, the Becket Fund’s communications director, said the U.S. government has “a million ways to get these drugs to people” such as through clinics or Title X, the federal grant program for family planning.