The U.S. Supreme Court issued two important religious liberty decisions today. Both were 7-2 decisions with Sotomayor and Ginsburg in dissent.

The first and most high profile was Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, involving regulations allowing entities with religious or morality objections to the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. The lower courts ruled the regulations unlawful, but the Supreme Court reversed.

Justice Thomas wrote the majority opinion (pdf.), joined by Roberts, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Alilto. Kagan wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, joined by Breyer. Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined by Sotomayor.

The current case before the Supreme Court involved 2017 regulations. The majority opinion traces the long history of prior litigation and failed attempts at bringing regulations into compliance with prior Supreme Court decisions, creating exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs and moral objections (emphasis added):

The Departments “believe[d] that the Court’s analysis in Hobby Lobby extends, for the purposes of analyzing a substantial burden, to the burdens that an entity faces when it religiously opposes participating in the [self-certification] accommodation process.” Id., at 47800. They thus “conclude[d] that it [was] appropriate to expand the exemption to other . . . organizations with sincerely held religious beliefs opposed to contraceptive coverage.” Id., at 47802; see also id., at 47810–47811.

The second IFR created a similar “moral exemption” for employers—including nonprofits and for-profits with no publicly traded components—with “sincerely held moral” objections to providing some or all forms of contraceptive coverage. Id., at 47850, 47861–47862. Citing congressional enactments, precedents from this Court, agency practice, and state laws that provided for conscience protections, id., at 47844–47847, the Departments invoked their authority under the ACA to create this exemption, id., at 47844. The Departments requested post-promulgation comments on both IFRs. Id., at 47813, 47854.

From the Thomas majority opinion upholding those exemptions:

In these consolidated cases, we decide whether the Government created lawful exemptions from a regulatory requirement implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), 124 Stat. 119. The requirement at issue obligates certain employers to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees through their group health plans. Though contraceptive coverage is not required by (or even mentioned in) the ACA provision at issue, the Government mandated such coverage by promulgating interim final rules (IFRs) shortly after the ACA’s passage. This requirement is known as the contraceptive mandate.

After six years of protracted litigation, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury (Departments)—which jointly administer the relevant ACA provision1—exempted certain employers who have religious and conscientious objections from this agency-created mandate. The Third Circuit concluded that the Departments lacked statutory authority to promulgate these exemptions and affirmed the District Court’s nationwide preliminary injunction. This decision was erroneous. We hold that the Departments had the authority to provide exemptions from the regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections. We accordingly reverse the Third Circuit’s judgment and remand with instructions to dissolve the nationwide preliminary injunction.

In a separate case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, Justice Alito writing the majority opinion (pdf.), applied the “ministerial exception” to prohibit employment discrimination claims by teachers at religious schools. Alito was joined by all justices except Sotomayor, who filed a dissent joined by Ginsburg.

From the Alito majority opinion:

These cases require us to decide whether the First Amendment permits courts to intervene in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith. 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.” Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344
U. S. 94, 116 (1952). Applying this principle, we held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), that the First Amendment barred a court from entertaining an employment discrimination claim brought by an elementary school teacher, Cheryl Perich, against the religious school where she taught. Our decision built on a line of lower court cases adopting what was dubbed the “ministerial exception” to laws governing the employment relationship between a religious institution and certain key employees. We did not announce “a rigid formula” for determining whether an employee falls within this exception, but we identified circumstances that we found relevant in that case, including Perich’s title as a “Minister of Religion, Commissioned,” her educational training, and her responsibility to teach religion and participate with students in religious activities. Id., at 190–191.

In the cases now before us, we consider employment discrimination claims brought by two elementary school teachers at Catholic schools whose teaching responsibilities are similar to Perich’s. Although these teachers were not given the title of “minister” and have less religious training than Perich, we hold that their cases fall within the same rule that dictated our decision in Hosanna-Tabor. 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. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions.


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