WASHINGTON — In a 2-1 decision delivered Feb. 18, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in its challenge to the federal contraception mandate.
“We are disappointed in the court’s refusal to protect our religious freedom,” EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael Warsaw said.
“We simply want to continue to practice the same faith we preach to the world every day,” he said in a Feb. 18 statement. “We are prayerful and hopeful that, if necessary, the Supreme Court will correct this critical error.”
EWTN Global Catholic Network was founded by Mother Angelica, a Franciscan nun. Its purpose is to share the Catholic faith across the globe. Reaching more than 250 million homes in 144 different countries, it is the largest religious media network in the world and is among hundreds of organizations to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate.
The mandate requires employers to offer health-insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
Employers who fail to comply with the mandate face crippling penalties. Many Catholic and non-Catholic organizations have filed lawsuits against the mandate, saying it violates religious freedom and compels them to act against their religious and moral beliefs.
In its decision, the federal court said, “We accept the plaintiffs’ sincere belief ... that the accommodation puts them to a choice between honoring their religious beliefs and facing significant penalties. We nonetheless conclude that the accommodation imposes no substantial burden.”
The dissenting opinion in the case argued that the majority ruling “runs roughshod over the sincerely held religious objections of Eternal Word Television Network” and threatens core religious-freedom legislation.
Directly after delivering its ruling, the court placed its effects on hold until the Supreme Court rules on the mandate later this year. This protects EWTN from accumulating fines while waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision.
Lori Windham, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead attorney on the case, said that the federal court’s decision “is wrong.”
“Rather than provide these drugs and devices through its own exchanges, our government wants to punish EWTN for practicing its faith,” she said.
“This 2-1 decision is not the end. The government’s unconstitutional mandate has lost repeatedly at the Supreme Court, and we believe it will lose again.”
On Nov. 6, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear several remaining legal challenges to the mandate, including plaintiffs like Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh and the Little Sisters of the Poor. The cases will be heard in March.
For failing to comply with the mandate, EWTN said it could face fines of $35,000 per day, about $12.7 million per year. Its amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief charged that the government aims to force EWTN into “complicity with wrongdoing.”
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a closely held private company whose Christian owners objected to parts of the mandate. Its ruling on the nonprofit challenges to the mandate is expect this summer.