A Big Day for Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court

In two cases, justices uphold conscience exemptions, religious hiring practices

A Big Day for Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court

In two cases, justices uphold conscience exemptions, religious hiring practices

The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered a long-sought victory for organizations seeking conscience protections from government-mandated health plans requiring them to cover contraceptives and abortifacients. In a separate case, the court reaffirmed the right of religious entities to make employment decisions according to their doctrinal beliefs without government interference.

The 7-2 ruling in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cleared the way for the implementation of 2018 Trump administration rules exempting organizations with moral or religious objections to the Obamacare abortifacient-contraceptive mandate.

Under the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2011, rules developed by the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury required that free access to contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, be covered by health plans. The mandate drew opposition from parachurch groups and religious schools, which were originally hemmed in by the mandate while “houses of worship” were exempted. After six years of litigation, the high court has now ruled that the exemptions for religious organizations, and for businesses with “sincere moral” objections, originally scheduled to take effect in January 2019, are legal.

As drafted by the Obama administration, violators of the mandate—which would have included hundreds of evangelical organizations in addition to Catholic entities like Little Sisters, an order of nuns that serves the elderly poor—would have been subject to hefty daily fines. In 2017, the Trump administration introduced new interim rules exempting not only religious organizations but businesses with moral objections. The current case, which represented the Little Sisters’ third trip to the Supreme Court, stemmed from challenges to the Trump administration rules by the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The court did the right thing by protecting the Little Sisters from an unnecessary mandate that would have gutted their ministry,” said Mark Rienzi, president of Becket, a religious liberty law firm that represented the nuns. “Governments don’t need nuns to distribute contraceptives. But they do need religious groups to care for the elderly, heal the sick and feed the hungry. These governments all have real work they ought to be doing rather than dividing people with old and unnecessary culture wars.”

Congressman Doug Collins, a former pastor and Georgia Republican, weighed in on Twitter: “Big win for religious liberty! Our country was founded on the freedom of religion. It’s unconstitutional—and morally WRONG—for the government to force faith-based institutions to take action that violates their beliefs. I’m glad #SCOTUS agrees.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer from the court’s liberal wing concurred with the ruling, but suggested more legal wrangling could arise. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Thomas, writing for the majority, said: “For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. … But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision—have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs. After two decisions from this Court and multiple failed regulatory attempts, the Federal Government has arrived at a solution …”

In the second case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the high court, in another 7-2 decision, leaned on its earlier rulings to reaffirm that religious organizations are free to make employment decisions without government intrusion.

The Guadalupe School case involved a challenge to the doctrine known as “ministerial exception,” which protects religious entities from lawsuits over employment decisions for those involved in religious teaching. Two former teachers at Roman Catholic schools in California brought suits against their former schools, arguing they had been wrongfully dismissed.

But the majority argued that religious organizations have constitutionally granted jurisdiction over such decisions.

Alito, writing for the majority, said that in cases in which a “school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”

“The First Amendment protects the right of religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” Alito stated.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which filed an amicus brief in the case, applauded the ruling.

The Supreme Court was right today to affirm the separate sphere of religious institutions in carrying out their mission from the dictation of the state. … If a religious organization cannot recruit leaders who agree with the beliefs and practices of those organizations, then there can be no true religious freedom. The Court recognized that today.”

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel of First Liberty Institute, noted, “There should no longer be any doubt that religious schools and institutions have the right to freely choose who will preach their religious message, teach their religious doctrine, and lead our future generations according to their religious tradition.”

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/CNP/dpa/Alamy Live News

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