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Catholic TV network sues US over birth control mandate

The measure would require religious-based employers to provide insurance coverage for birth control that church teaching forbids. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Update Friday, Feb. 10, 12:28 a.m. ET: After days of resistance from religious-based organizations, President Barack Obama has backed away from requiring them to cover birth control for their employees.

The White House announced Friday that it won't compel religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as a violation of their faith to cover it. Instead, it demanded that insurance companies be responsible for providing free contraception.

Full details: Obama revamps contraceptive policy 

Original post: The Obama administration's rule requiring religious employers to cover birth control services is going to court after a Catholic TV network sued Thursday to block the mandate.

The order, which the Department of Health and Human Services finalized last month, eliminates a federal exemption that allows religion-affiliated institutions to opt out of the law requiring employers to cover contraceptive services in their health insurance packages. 

Churches themselves would remain exempt, but when it goes into effect Aug. 1, the rule will require church-affiliated universities, hospitals, clubs and the like to cover "all [federally] approved forms of contraception."

The Roman Catholic Church bans artificial methods of contraception, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has fiercely opposed the new rule, which it said "forces religious employers and schools to sponsor and subsidize coverage that violates their beliefs" and "forces religious employees and students to purchase coverage that violates their beliefs."

Read the full statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bioethicist: Bishops' birth control stance harms workers

Thursday, EWTN — a Catholic television network carried on thousands of cable systems in more than 100 countries — filed suit in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Ala.


"We had no other option," said Michael Warsaw, president of EWTN, which stands for Eternal Word Television Network. 

"Under the HHS mandate, EWTN is being forced by the government to make a choice: Either we provide employees coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs and violate our conscience or offer our employees and their families no health insurance coverage at all. Neither of those choices is acceptable," Warsaw said.

On at least one point, Warsaw is wrong, said Erin Shields, HHS's top spokeswoman.

While the rule covers "emergency contraceptives" like Plan B and Next Choice, it doesn't cover drugs that cause abortion, Shields told NBC station WYFF of Greenville, S.C.

The HHS rule is also being challenged in Congress, where Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have sponsored legislation that would restore the option for religious organizations to opt out of coverage.

"This is about whether the government of the United States should have the power to go in and tell a faith-based organization they have to pay for something that they teach their members shouldn't be doing. It`s that simple," Rubio said. 

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., detail their bill to let organizations opt out of the contraception rule.

But advocates say the measure is an advance for women's reproductive rights, pointing to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that studies sexual and reproductive issues, which reported last year that nearly all sexually active U.S. women had used birth control. That includes 98 percent of Catholic women, the study reported.

Read the Guttmacher Institute report (.pdf)

"I am dumbfounded that in the year 2012, we still are fighting about birth control," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "Our opponents will look for any excuse to impose their ideology on women's rights."

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said the administration is willing to work with Catholic universities and hospitals to find a way for them to cover contraception without abridging "anyone's religious freedom," NBCLatino reported.

So far, the administration hasn't said how it plans to do that.

NBC station WYFF of Greenville, S.C., and NBCLatino.com contributed to the report by M. Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.

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