A Catholic television network founded by a cloistered nun 30 years ago, filed suit in federal court today challenging the Obama administration's policy requiring most health insurance plans to cover preventive services for women, including contraception and the morning after pill - without any co-pay.
The lawsuit, filed by the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), is the latest of three cases arguing against the Obama administration's policy, on the grounds that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
"Federal law prohibits the government from forcing people to violate their religion absent a really compelling reason," says Mark Rienzi, a senior lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing all three of the plaintiffs.
The administration's policy has been controversial, particularly because it exempts only churches and religious orders.
EWTN, headquartered in Irondale, Alabama, has 340 employees and calls itself the largest Catholic media network in the country. Founded in 1981 by Mother M. Angelica of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration order, EWTN transmits programming 24 hours a day in both English and Spanish, to more than 217 million homes in 144 countries. It airs family programming from a Catholic point of view, and spiritual devotions from Catholic religious practice.
"What makes this case unique is that these are lay Catholics-the people sitting in the pews-who are refusing to comply with this law and insisting their religious freedom must be protected,"says Rienzi, of the EWTN lawsuit.
In a press release in January, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that after "evaluating comments" HHS would add an "additional element" to the rule: "Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year…to comply with the new law."
Rienzi says the EWTN doesn't need that extra year. "That year does us no good," he said. "Our religious principles will not adapt in a year."
Kevin C. Walsh, a professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law is critical of the Obama administration's position. He believes the religious exemption should be more inclusive of religious organizations like universities, hospitals and social services agencies that employ and serve people of different faiths.
"In a nutshell federal law says the government cannot substantially burden the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest," Walsh says.
The compelling interest is the public health of women and their children, supporters of the Obama policy say.
"In this country, half of all pregnancies are unintended," said Judy G. Waxman, of the National Women's Law Center. "This causes many health problems for women and their babies. Properly spaced children create healthier children and healthier families."
In her press release, Sebelius addressed the government's interest. "Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing."
Sebelius also addressed concerns about religious liberty. "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
Ariane de Vogue ABC News 202-222-7276 202 -329-8080 cell Ariane.deVogue@abc.com twitter.com/arianedevogue