Catholic Broadcaster Wins Birth Control Benefit Reprieve After Hobby Lobby Ruling

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion issued Monday, a federal appeals court temporarily barred the federal government from forcing an Alabama-based Catholic broadcasting network to comply with a law requiring them to cover contraceptives for women.

A federal judge last week dismissed a lawsuit filed by Eternal Word Television Network maintaining that requiring employers to include contraception in their health care coverage is unconstitutional. The broadcaster appealed the ruling, and a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issued an order Monday barring enforcement of the requirement pending the outcome of the network’s appeal.

The 11th Circuit said it was granting the injunction in light of the Supreme Court’s opinion, which held that corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion, over a dissent from the four liberal justices, that forcing companies to pay for methods of women’s contraception to which they object violates the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He said the ruling is limited and there are ways for the administration to ensure women get the birth control they want.

The 11th Circuit order said the judges had “no views” on the merits of EWTN’s appeal. But Judge William H. Pryor Jr. wrote in a concurring opinion that it seems likely the network will succeed in its appeal.

The network is among dozens of church-based organizations across the country that have sued over the contraception requirement in the health care law. The broadcaster argues contraception, drugs that induce abortion and voluntarily sterilization are not part of health care and, therefore, the government shouldn’t force the network to provide them as part of its employer-sponsored health plan.

Alito wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court decision is limited to contraceptives. “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs,” he said.

He suggested that the government could pay for pregnancy prevention or could provide the same kind of accommodation available to religious-oriented, not-for-profit corporations.

When those groups say providing the coverage violates their religious beliefs, their insurer or a third-party administrator pays for the birth control. The employer doesn’t have to arrange for the coverage or pay for it, and the government reimburses insurers through credits against fees owed under other provisions of the health care law.

That accommodation is the subject of separate legal challenges, and the court said Monday that profit-seeking companies could not assert religious claims in such a situation.

The network said it was pleased by the Supreme Court decision.

“The Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case was a great affirmation of the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression,” network chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw said in an emailed statement. “While the Hobby Lobby decision did not directly resolve EWTN’s case, this afternoon’s injunction from the appellate court allows us to press forward without facing the government’s crushing fines.”

The network is relieved and encouraged by Monday’s court actions and looks forward to making its case before the 11th Circuit, Warsaw said.

“The fact that the Supreme Court believes that the government has an obligation to use the least restrictive means of accomplishing its goals is very helpful to the EWTN case,” he said. “EWTN has raised similar arguments with regard to the government’s `accommodation’ scheme for faith-based organizations.”