U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Cases Impacting Religious Freedom

The United States Supreme Court ruled on two cases in July that will directly impact religious freedom nationwide. The two cases, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, are clearly beneficial to religious organizations.

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania

 This case was a clear victory for religious freedom. Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate many nursing homes serving the elderly, have been seeking an exemption to the Obama Administration mandate that all employers must cover birth control in the health plans offered to their employees. The birth control was also to be provide free, with no co-pays or deductibles.  The Sisters objected to the mandate since it would force them to violate their deeply held religious beliefs. After many years of legal battles, the Trump administration enacted a regulation allowing employers with deeply held religious beliefs an exemption to the mandate. This action was challenged in the courts and eventually was heard by the Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act allowed the President to establish such an exemption, and that the Administration was in full compliance with the procedural steps outlined in the Federal Administrative Procedures Act for creating such an exemption. Unfortunately, since Congress did not place language in the Affordable Care Act protecting religious beliefs, the regulation established by the Trump Administration can eventual be undone by a future president.

It should be noted that Connecticut already had a mandatory birth control coverage statute prior to the Affordable Care Act being enacted. The difference is that the Connecticut General Assembly included a religious exemption in the law.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

In another 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that religious schools and other religious entities are exempt from many state and federal employment laws, especially those related to hiring and termination. This case focused on the termination of a teacher at the school. The claimant believed that proper state laws and procedures were not adhered to by the school. The Court ruled that it is a direct violation of the First Amendment for a state to interfere in the determination of who transmits the religious beliefs of a religiously based organization.

The ruling also appears to expand the determination of who plays a ministerial role in a school or religious entity. The religious entity, not the state, makes that determination, but must be able to support its determination.