Alabama attorney general joins EWTN lawsuit against HHS rule

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange CNA US Catholic News 3 21 12 Alabama's Attorney General Luther Strange

The state of Alabama is joining the world's largest religious media network in its lawsuit against the U.S. government's contraception and sterilization coverage mandate.

“We are grateful to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange for taking such a strong stand on this issue,” said Michael P. Warsaw, president and CEO of the Eternal Word Television Network, in an announcement made after Strange filed in federal court as a co-plaintiff on March 22.

“This suit demonstrates that the Alabama motto, ‘We dare to defend our rights,’ is no mere slogan,” Warsaw observed.

“The state could simply have chosen to file a brief advising the court of the impact of the case on its citizens. Instead, it is intervening in the suit as a co-plaintiff with EWTN.”

The move sends a message “that this unjust, unconstitutional mandate hurts not only EWTN, but the entire community,” Warsaw said.

The media network filed its lawsuit against the government on Feb. 9, one day before the administration confirmed the rule that requires many religious ministries to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs in their health plans.

The network, assisted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, was among the first religious organizations to sue the federal government over the contraception mandate. Alabama's filing on Thursday makes it the eighth state whose attorney general is challenging the rule in court.

On a March 22 conference call with reporters, EWTN General Counsel John Manos said the network was “no longer alone in this fight for religious freedom, but is joined by the entire state of Alabama to fight this egregious mandate.”

“We are grateful and relieved,” said Manos, “because this mandate, which forces people to act contrary to their beliefs, affects everyone – not just EWTN.”

In his filing, Alabama's attorney general explains that current law in his state allows religious ministries to make insurance contracts that exclude the controversial services. Under the administration's rule, formulated under the 2010 health care law, many non-exempt religious groups would lose this right.

“Alabama’s government and people have a long tradition of respect for religious freedom and the right to conscience,” Attorney General Strange states in his motion to intervene as co-plaintiff.

The state constitution “has always declared 'that the civil rights, privileges, and capacities of any citizen shall not be in any manner affected by his religious principles.'” In 1998, Alabama voters amended their state constitution to include the provisions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

During Thursday's conference call, Becket Fund General Counsel Kyle Duncan told reporters that Alabama's intervention highlighted “another massive problem caused by the HHS mandate” – namely, the clash between its requirements and those of different state constitutions.

“The mandate, which is a command from the federal government, prohibits a state like Alabama from protecting its own citizens' religious liberties as it manages its own healthcare market in response to the Affordable Care Act,” he told reporters.

As a result, Duncan said, Alabama's state government “can't comply with the federal law without violating its own constitutional guarantees of religious freedom for all of its citizens.”

Alabama's attorney general is also concerned that the contraception mandate will burden his state financially. If non-exempt religious employers must drop their insurance plans for reasons of conscience, employees would be forced to find insurance through public programs like Medicaid.

Strange's filing also stresses his responsibility, as attorney general, to ensure that charitable institutions fulfill their mission in accordance with their own stated purposes and bylaws. He argues that the mandate intrudes on both this duty of his office, and the missions of the religious nonprofits it oversees.

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Under the mandate, Warsaw said, the federal government can force religious institutions to compromise their mission – and put an end to these groups if they refuse.

“When the federal government uses its power to coerce a faith-based organization to act contrary to its deeply held values, it destroys that organization’s capacity to fulfill its mission,” EWTN's president and CEO explained.

“Ultimately, as is the case with the HHS mandate, if that organization is unwilling to compromise its beliefs, it is destroyed by fines and crushing government penalties; it ceases to exist.”

“In joining EWTN’s lawsuit, Attorney General Strange shows that he understands this is unacceptable.  I am very grateful that he has chosen to use the state’s power to intervene for the common good.”

In his own remarks on the lawsuit, Strange reminded the public that religious liberty “is our ‘first freedom’ under the United States Constitution.”

“The people of Alabama have recognized the importance of this freedom and have enshrined it in their constitution as well,” he noted. “Alabama law does not allow anyone to be forced to offer a product that is against his or her religious beliefs or conscience.”

“The issue is simple,” the attorney general stated. “Either Alabamians and Americans around the country will be allowed to exercise their religious freedom to say ‘no’ to something they disagree with, or they won’t.”

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“We hope the Obama Administration will listen, and adopt a position that supports our first freedom rather than undermines it.”

Alabama's entry into the contraception mandate lawsuit comes as the Supreme Court prepares for a March 26-28 hearing that will weigh the constitutionality of the federal health care law as a whole. The court will focus on its “individual mandate,” which requires citizens to obtain health insurance.

In his remarks to reporters on Thursday, Attorney General Strange argued that the dispute over the contraception mandate “is the natural consequence of Obamacare's individual mandate.”

“If the federal government can mandate that everyone has to buy something, then the government can require us to buy something even if we are morally opposed to paying for it,” Strange said, expressing his hope that the Supreme Court will find the health care law unconstitutional.

Updated March 22, 2012 at 1:06 p.m. Central Time. Adds comments from press conference.

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