Supreme Court Hands Down 2 Enormous Victories for Religious Freedom

By Reaghan Waites | NC Values

In a 180-degree turn away from a line of liberal-leaning Supreme Court decisions, the Nation’s highest Court just handed down two historic wins for religious liberty this week.

Both Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey- Berru and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania address the extent to which religious organizations receive special first amendment protection.

In Guadalupe, two Catholic elementary school teachers brought employment discrimination claims. The Court generally stays away from involvement in anti-discrimination cases when a religious institution makes employment decisions involving a “ministerial” employee. This “ministerial exception” prevents excessive entanglement between the judicial branch and religious institutions. It exists to recognize the independent authority of the church in matters of faith.

Although the two Catholic school employees did not hold the job title “minister”, the Court chose to apply the ministerial exception. The Court noted that in deciding whether or not to apply this exception, it is more important to evaluate the job and duties of the employee than the title they hold. Here, the two teachers—Morrissey-Berru and Biel— were educating young students while intertwining the Catholic faith into their studies. For Morrissey-Berru, this meant preparing her students to participate in Mass, communion and confession. For Biel, her duties included instructing students on Catholicism and teaching religion for 200 minutes each week. As a result, the Court decided that both teachers were acting in a ministerial capacity such that that judicial intervention would violate the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. This is an enormous victory for private religious schools across the country.

Just like Guadalupe, Little Sisters reaffirmed the special protection religious institutions receive to operate in a manner consistent with their faith.

When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) was passed, the contraceptive mandate became an obstacle for many religious institutions. For Little Sisters, it was detrimental to the institution’s core values. How could they continue to operate in accordance with their belief that “deliberately avoiding reproduction through medical means is immoral” when the ACA was mandating contraceptive coverage?

In 2017, the Trump Administration created a religious exemption and a moral exemption from the contraceptive mandate. This religious and moral exemption was challenged by Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who argued that the federal agencies that issued the new exemptions lacked the authority to protect the Little Sisters. The Supreme Court was unconvinced by this argument.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court decided that the federal government had the authority to craft the religious and moral exemptions. The Trump Administration was acting within their authority when extending protection against the contraceptive mandate on religious and moral grounds. This is because the ACA did not expressly prohibit the federal government from creating new exemptions.

In the words of Justice Clarence Thomas, the same provisions of the Affordable Care Act that granted the federal agencies sweeping authority to create the contraceptive mandate also empowers them “to identify and create exemptions” to it.

Unfortunately, the Little Sisters may not receive protection for long. The sad reality is that the religious freedom afforded here may easily be diluted or even eliminated if a hostile administration comes to the White House.

The Court could have afforded further protections for the Little Sisters by ruling that the religious and moral exemptions were compelled by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This would have made the process of overruling such exemptions much more difficult.

Regardless, these two cases mark a great victory for all Americans, regardless of political affiliation. The free exercise of religion was the foundation that our nation was built on. Hopefully, Supreme Court cases will continue to reflect that truth.

Ultimately, the government should not have the ability to act as a puppeteer, forcing religious entities to violate their core values or else face judicial consequence. The Court should continue to protect religious freedom, thus allowing religious institutions to operate unencumbered and free of the looming shadow of litigation. 

Read our Amicus brief for Little Sisters here.

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