Supreme Court Protects Religious Freedom in Labor Law, Contraception Rulings

July 8, 2020 Updated: July 8, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause exempts religious organizations from employment discrimination lawsuits and from a requirement to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

Both rulings are victories for the Trump administration.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany hailed the Supreme Court’s support for conscience rights.

“Almost a decade ago, the Obama administration attempted to force employers, including religious nonprofits like the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns, to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, in violation of their religious beliefs. … Today, it has once again vindicated the conscience rights of people of faith,” McEnany said.

“Since Day One, the Trump administration has sought to lift burdens on religious exercise for people of all faiths.”

The high court issued 7–2 decisions July 8 in two separate sets of cases. Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel were consolidated and heard together May 11, concerning employment discrimination, while Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania were also consolidated and heard together May 6, concerning contraception.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinions in both cases.

Two Roman Catholic schools in Los Angeles argued that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ignored binding case law by allowing teachers to move forward employment discrimination lawsuits. While one of the teachers claimed age discrimination, the other, who has since died and is now represented by her husband, alleged she was fired after informing the school she had breast cancer.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission[,]” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority.

“Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor criticized the court majority for reaching the decision “even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic.”

The majority applied “a simplistic approach [that] has no basis in law and strips thousands of schoolteachers of their legal protections.”

The other set of cases dealt with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, under which employers have to make cost-free contraceptives available to employees. Churches were exempted.

The 2011 Obama-era contraception mandate has spurred more than 100 lawsuits from private individuals, religious groups, state governments, and businesses that objected to it on religious grounds. In October 2017, the Trump administration issued a regulation exempting religious groups from complying with the Obamacare mandate.

The Trump administration argued that the Obama administration had been wrong to try to compel religious organizations and others to provide services such as the morning-after pill in their health plans because doing so violated their religious beliefs.

Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the court, writing that the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it found that the federal departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury, which jointly administer the relevant ACA provision, lacked authority to issue an exemption to the mandate.

The departments stated that the exemption “aimed to ‘protec[t]’ religious organizations ‘from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for [contraceptive] coverage’ in a way that was consistent with and did not violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993,” Thomas wrote.

For more than 150 years, the Little Sisters organization, which considers contraception to be a sin, has “engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother,” the justice wrote.

But for the past seven years, since the mandate came out, the organization “like many other religious objectors … have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

In her dissenting opinion, Ginsburg said that the court went too far in protecting freedom of religion, sacrificing other things in the process.

“Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” she wrote.

Religious groups applauded the rulings.

“The Little Sisters’ long struggle for survival is one evidence of the growing hostility to religion in America,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said. “It should be common sense to allow a religious group to conduct themselves according to their religious convictions, and yet government agents have tried to punish them with obtuse fines for doing just that. … There is no more fundamental freedom than to obey the dictates of one’s own conscience, and no freedom should be held more sacred from government interference.”

Michael McHale, Thomas More Society counsel, said the Little Sisters ruling brings to an end, at least for now, “nine years of discrimination against the Little Sisters’ and other religious non-profits’ right to be free from the coerced provision of contraception and abortifacients.”

“As a result, this decision is to be applauded,” McHale said.

Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, said the court recognized “that the Constitution bars the government from interfering in the independent employment decisions of religious organizations.”

“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,” Shackelford said.

The American Civil Liberties Union was unhappy with the Little Sisters ruling.

“The Supreme Court just sided with the Trump administration, ruling your employer or university can deny you birth control coverage based on a religious or moral objection,” the group wrote in a tweet.

“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Religious liberty is not a license to discriminate.”