Supreme Court decisions on contraceptives, Catholic schools called a win for religious freedom

by Carol Zimmermann

Catholic News Service

July 8, 2020

A demonstrator in Washington holds a large cross outside the U.S. Supreme Court  July 8, 2020.A demonstrator in Washington holds a large cross outside the U.S. Supreme Court  July 8, 2020.
A demonstrator in Washington holds a large cross outside the U.S. Supreme Court  July 8, 2020. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters) 


EDITOR’S NOTE: North Texas Catholic staff contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON (CNS) – On July 8, the U.S. Supreme Court announced two decisions that strengthened religious freedom. In separate 7-2 decisions, the Supreme Court upheld regulations by the Trump administration giving employers more ability to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage in their health plans, and the justices ruled California Catholic schools could not be sued for job discrimination in firing teachers.

In both cases, dissenting votes were by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

 

A religious exemption for contraceptive requirement


Does the expansion of the conscience exemption from the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate violate the health care law and laws governing federal administrative agencies?

The case highlighted — as it has before when the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate has come before the high court — the Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of women religious who care for the elderly poor. The sisters were represented, as they have been previously, by Becket, a religious liberty law firm.

The case combined Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.

The decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the administration had "the authority to provide exemptions from the regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections."

"This is a saga that did not need to occur. Contraception is not health care, and the government should never have mandated that employers provide it in the first place," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.

The bishops said they welcomed the decision and hoped it "brings a close to this episode of government discrimination against people of faith. Yet, considering the efforts we have seen to force compliance with this mandate, we must continue to be vigilant for religious freedom," they said.

The statement was issued by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the USCCB's Committee for Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

According to government estimates, the Trump administration's rule changes would prevent 70,000 to 126,000 women from having contraception coverage in their employee health insurance.

Ginsburg, who cited these numbers in her dissent, said the court had previously taken a balanced approach in accommodating claims of religious freedom "one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs." She said that in this decision the court, for the first time, "casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree."

The U.S. bishops said there had been "multiple opportunities for government officials to do the right thing and exempt conscientious objectors. Time after time, administrators and attorneys refused to respect the rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Catholic faith they exemplify, to operate in accordance with the truth about sex and the human person. Even after the federal government expanded religious exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate, Pennsylvania and other states chose to continue this attack on conscience."

Thomas, describing the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor and their involvement in this case, wrote: "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."

Mother Loraine Marie Maguire, the order's U.S. provincial, said the Little Sisters of the Poor were "overjoyed that, once again, the Supreme Court has protected our right to serve the elderly without violating our faith. Our life's work and great joy is serving the elderly poor and we are so grateful that the contraceptive mandate will no longer steal our attention from our calling."

Little Sisters of the Poor in front of the Supreme CourtLittle Sisters of the Poor in front of the Supreme Court
In this 2016 file photo, Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters) 


A recap of the sisters' involvement in this case goes back to 2013 when religious groups and houses of worship were granted a religious exemption by the Supreme Court from the government's mandate to include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.

Three years later, religious nonprofit groups challenged the requirement to comply with the mandate and the court sent the cases back to the lower courts with instructions for the federal government and the challengers to try to work out an agreeable solution.

Then in 2017, religious groups were given further protection from the contraceptive mandate through an executive order issued by President Donald Trump requiring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to write a comprehensive exemption to benefit religious ministries, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, from the contraceptive mandate.

HHS provided this exemption in 2018, but several states challenged it, including California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, saying HHS didn't have the power to give this exemption.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey obtained a nationwide injunction against the rules protecting religious objectors from the contraceptive mandate; that injunction was then upheld by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia.

This is where the Little Sisters come back because they appealed the circuit court's ruling and asked the Supreme Court to step in.

In one of the two consolidated cases, Trump v. Pennsylvania, the administration argued that the exceptions to the contraceptive mandate for religious groups were authorized by the health care law and required by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA.

Lawyers for Pennsylvania and New Jersey said the administration lacked statutory authority to issue such regulations and said the government did not follow proper administrative procedures.

The second case examines whether the Little Sisters of the Poor had the standing to appeal the 3rd Circuit ruling since a separate court order had already allowed them to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the Little Sisters of the Poor, which stressed that the court needs to set the record straight, particularly with its interpretation of RFRA, which says "governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification."

The brief said there was a compelling need to review this case not only because the 3rd Circuit Court decision conflicts with other Supreme Court rulings on this topic in the Hobby Lobby and Zubik decisions, but because its ruling "threatens to reduce one of America's leading civil rights laws to virtual impotence," referring to RFRA.

It emphasized that RFRA essentially hangs in the balance because the appeals court "adopted a grudging interpretation of the statute that will, unless reversed, too often deny protection for religious people and institutions."

 

Catholic schools and job discrimination


Two U.S. bishops said they welcomed the Supreme Court's ruling which said California Catholic schools could not be sued for job discrimination in firing teachers. The bishops said the decision "rightly acknowledged" the limit on state authority.

The female figure called "Contemplation of Justice" is seen at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington July 2, 2020.The female figure called "Contemplation of Justice" is seen at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington July 2, 2020.
The female figure called "Contemplation of Justice" is seen at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington July 2, 2020. In a 7-2 ruling July 8, the Supreme Court said the California Catholic schools sued for job discrimination for firing teachers had acted within their rights in the recent firings. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters) 


The cases before the court were a combination of two cases, St. James School v. Biel and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berrum, both schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

This ruling examined if courts can hear employment discrimination claims brought by teachers at Catholic elementary schools. It involved California Catholic school teachers who claimed they had been victims of job discrimination and the schools who fired them who said they were exempt from anti-discrimination laws due to ministerial exception spelled out in a previous Supreme Court case about a fired teacher at a Lutheran school.

At St. James School in Torrance, former fifth grade teacher, Kristen Biel, said she was fired after informing school administrators that she had breast cancer and would have to take time off for surgery and chemotherapy. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Biel died last summer, but her husband is seeking damages. Becket, the nonprofit religious liberty law firm representing the schools, said that in 2015, the school chose not to renew Biel's one-year contract based on classroom performance.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach did not renew the contract in 2013 for Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who had taught both fifth and sixth grades since 1999, saying she had a problem keeping order in her classroom and meeting expectations under a new reading program. Morrissey-Berru sued, alleging age bias under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

In both cases, federal district courts ruled in favor of the schools, citing ministerial exception. But two separate panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed these decisions, saying the limited extent of the employee's religious duties were insufficient to qualify for a ministerial exception that was more often applied to those with roles of religious leadership.

The 2012 decision these schools were standing on is Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where a teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan said she was fired for pursuing an employment discrimination claim based on a disability.

In that ruling, the court said the ministerial exception to anti-discrimination laws meant that religious organizations couldn't be sued for firing an employee classified as a minister.

Briefs filed by both schools point out that the "scope of the ministerial exception is a vital and recurring question of nationwide importance for thousands of religious organizations and individuals."

The National Catholic Educational Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief in support of St. James School, stressed instead that Biel, as the school's only fifth grade teacher, "bore particular responsibility for effectuating — and embodying — the integral formation that is distinct to Catholic schools."

Richard Garnett, law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School and director of the university's Program on Church, State and Society, said at the time of the oral arguments that even though these teachers were not giving theology instruction and were not ordained clergy, "their role is, and is understood as, a ministerial one, and secular courts are not in a good position to second-guess or override religious institutions' decisions about their ministerial employees' role."

He also said the cases were not, "as some have complained, about a supposed right of churches to 'ignore' civil-rights laws. Quite the contrary. These cases are about protecting the civil and constitutional rights of religious institutions to decide religious questions for themselves."

The decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said: "What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does."

He said that even though the elementary school teachers "were not given the title of 'minister' and have less religious training" than the teacher in the previous court case involving the ministerial exception, the court holds that the same rule applies.

"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," Alito wrote.

"Education is a central aspect of the Church's mission," the bishops said. "As "institutions carrying out a ministry of the Church, Catholic schools have a right, recognized by the Constitution, to select people who will perform ministry. The government has no authority to second-guess those ministerial decisions."

The statement was issued by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Michael C. Barber, of Oakland, California, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Catholic Education.

Adrian Alarcon, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools, similarly pointed out that "religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers" and that the archdiocesan Catholic schools are "grateful that the Supreme Court recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties."

In her dissent, Sotomayor said the court's ruling is "not only wrong on the facts, but its error also risks upending anti-discrimination protections for many employees of religious entities."

She noted that the court has "recently lamented a perceived 'discrimination against religion.'" Yet in this case, she said, the court "swings the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction, permitting religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs," something she said will be "impossible to ignore for long, particularly in a pluralistic society."

A man stands with a cross in front of the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNS) – On July 8, the U.S. Supreme Court announced two decisions that strengthened religious freedom. 

Published (until 7/8/2039)