3 States File Brief on Behalf of Catholic TV Station Seeking Exemption From HHS' Contraception Mandate

Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN)
Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), a Catholic television network founded in 1981 and based in Irondale, Alabama. |

Three states have filed an amicus brief on behalf of an Alabama-based Catholic television station founded by nuns that is seeking an exemption from the Department of Health and Human Services' "preventive services" mandate.

The attorneys general for Alabama, Florida and Georgia filed the brief Monday in the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in support of the Eternal Word Television Network of Irondale.

In their brief, the state governments argued that the 11th Circuit should reverse a lower court ruling against EWTN regarding their effort to receive relief from the HHS mandate.

"This court should correct the district court's erroneous reasoning and result, protect EWTN's religious liberty, and follow binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court," read the brief. "The district court wrongly accepted the government's evaluation of what constitutes a substantial burden instead of relying on the Eternal World Television Network's own beliefs."

In February 2012, EWTN filed suit against HHS over the mandate, which would compel the Catholic broadcasting company to provide contraception coverage for its employees.

Founded by nuns, EWTN objected on moral and religious grounds to being forced to provide both birth control and abortion-inducing drugs.

The following month, U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn dismissed the lawsuit, arguing that since the HHS rules had not yet been finalized, a proper judgment was not possible.

In June 2012 HHS finalized the rules on the mandate, which included an "accommodation" for religious nonprofit organizations that some critics said still do not provide sufficient exemptions.

In October 2013, EWTN filed a second suit over the HHS mandate and had the backing with the attorney general of the state of Alabama.

Despite the state level support, in June U.S. District Judge Callie Granade ruled against EWTN's lawsuit, arguing that there was no substantial burden placed on EWTN.

"Legally (if not morally) speaking, there is a world of difference between a law that compels EWTN to provide contraceptive coverage directly and one in which the government places that burden on someone else after EWTN opts out," wrote Granade.

"Because EWTN's only religious objection to the mandate hinges upon the effect it will have on other parties after EWTN signs Form 700, rather than anything inherent to the act of signing and delivering Form 700 itself, the court finds that the mandate does not impose a substantial burden on EWTN's religious practice …"

EWTN appealed the decision and at the end of June they were given injunctive relief from the 11th Circuit within hours of the Supreme Court decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

"In light of the Supreme Court's decision today … we grant the motion of Eternal Word Television Network for an injunction pending appeal," wrote a three judge panel of the 11th Circuit.

The justices nevertheless added in their agreement to the motion that they "express no views on the ultimate merits of EWTN's appeal in this case."

Regarding the recent amicus brief by the three states, EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw said he was "grateful" for the brief.

"We are grateful for all the support that we have received in our fight for religious freedom," said Warsaw in a statement. "We are hopeful that the federal courts will once again protect EWTN's freedom to share the Catholic faith with the world, free of government fines."

EWTN is represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is overseeing scores of lawsuits against the mandate nationwide.

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