Eternal Word Television Network v. Azar

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
February 9, 2012
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama

Case Snapshot

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a federal mandate that required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans. The mandate did not accommodate religious objectors like Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic media network founded by Mother Angelica, a Catholic nun. Facing the impossible choice of violating its faith or paying millions of dollars in IRS fines, EWTN stood up against the HHS mandate in court. Becket represented EWTN throughout seven years of litigation in federal district and appellate courts. On November 29, 2018, following a formal settlement agreement, a Presidential Executive Order, and a new HHS rule protecting non-profits like EWTN from having to violate their faith, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally ruled to end EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.

Status

On November 29, 2018, following a formal settlement agreement, a Presidential Executive Order, and a new HHS rule protecting non-profits like EWTN from having to violate their faith, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally ruled to end EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.

Case Summary

An unconstitutional mandate threatened nun-founded Catholic television network

Thirty years ago, a cloistered nun named Mother Angelica started a small television network in her monastery garage to spread the teachings of the Catholic church. Today, the network she started, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), continues her mission. But in 2011, EWTN’s ability to remain to its Catholic faith was threatened by the federal government.

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate that required employers to provide services like the week-after pill in their health insurance plans, free of cost. Because the government refused to grant religious exemptions to religious non-profits like EWTN, the mandate would force the nun’s network to authorize and take part in providing contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion drugs to EWTN’s employees—fundamentally violating EWTN’s Catholic beliefs and mission. If EWTN did not comply with the mandate, it would face millions of dollars in fines from the IRS.

To continue its religious mission, EWTN spent seven years in court

EWTN refused to be part of the government’s plan to provide contraceptive services and drugs that destroy human life. In February 2012, Becket stepped in to represent EWTN in federal court.

What followed was nearly seven years of constant litigation. In June 2014, an Alabama district court ruled against EWTN days before the non-profit was due to face millions of dollars in IRS fines. Becket filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which granted EWTN emergency protection from the fines while its case was still ongoing. Then, in February 2015, the Eleventh Circuit ruled against EWTN—but it gave them shelter from the mandate until the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case, Zubik v. Burwell. The Supreme Court’s decision in that case granted a victory to religious non-profits by directing the government to find another way to achieve its goals without violating religious liberty. Because of that ruling, the Eleventh Circuit threw out its previous ruling against EWTN and instead ordered EWTN and the government to address possible alternatives to the mandate.

A hard-won victory, at last

On October 6, 2017, the government issued a new rule with a broader religious exemption, and on November 7, 2018, HHS issued a rule finalizing the exemption. On November 29, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally granted EWTN a hard-won victory when it ruled to end EWTN’s seven-year legal battle.


Importance to religious liberty:

  • HHS Mandate cases: Winning the HHS mandate cases sets an important precedent, confirming that the government cannot unnecessarily force religious people to violate their beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Religious communities have the right to build and lead their ministries according to their beliefs free from governmental discrimination.
  • Individual freedom: Religious individuals and organizations are free to follow their faith in all aspects of their lives, including in the workplace.