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Supreme Court sides with Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic schools

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John Burger - published on 07/08/20

Religious liberty central to contraception exemption and school governance cases.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who run a number of homes for the elderly in the United States and around the world, can be exempted from the requirement to ensure that lay employees receive free contraceptives as part of their healthcare coverage, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled Wednesday.

“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,” said an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas in the 7-2 decision. “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. After two decisions from this Court and multiple failed regulatory attempts, the Federal Government has arrived at a solution that exempts the Little Sisters from the source of their complicity-based concerns — the administratively imposed contraceptive mandate.”

The court ruled that the Trump administration had the authority to grant an exemption to groups with sincerely-held beliefs.

The decision in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania sent the case back to the Court of Appeals “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

It was one to two decisions issued Wednesday having to do with religious freedom, the other one involving employment disputes at churches and other religious institutions.

The Little Sisters case originated in the wake of passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The Little Sisters and other objecting religious employers were eventually given a way to be exempted from what came to be called the “Contraceptive Mandate,” but only if they filed a form which, they contended, amounted to them giving a green light to the federal government arranging for the coverage. That, they said, made them complicit in providing the morally objectionable contraception.

“Consistent with their Catholic faith, the Little Sisters hold the religious conviction that deliberately avoiding reproduction through medical means is immoral,” the Supreme Court majority opinion said. “They challenged the self-certification accommodation, claiming that completing the certification form would force them to violate their religious beliefs by ‘tak[ing] actions that directly cause others to provide contraception or appear to participate in the Departments’ delivery scheme.'”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the ruling.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito predicted that the case is not over, however.

“We now send these cases back to the lower courts, where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey are all but certain to pursue their argument that the current rule is flawed on yet another ground,” Alito wrote. “This will prolong the legal battle in which the Little Sisters have now been engaged for seven years — even though during all this time no employee of the Little Sisters has come forward with an objection to the Little Sisters’ conduct.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, noted that according to Justice Thomas, because the case could be decided based on the terms of the Affordable Care Act, the court did not have to reach the “closely related question of whether the contraceptive mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Thomas More Society, a national not-for-profit law firm dedicated to restoring respect in law for life, family, and religious liberty, called the decision a victory for both religious and women’s freedom.

While groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America criticized the ruling as an attack on “birth control coverage,” Helen Alvaré, Thomas More Society Special Counsel, commented, “The Supreme Court’s decision goes a good distance toward vindicating our most cherished Constitutional rights.” Speaking on behalf of Women Scholars, a group of distinguished female academics from dozens of law schools, universities, and seminaries, Alvaré said, “The [contraceptive] mandate threatened religious liberty and endorsed a reductionist and harmful understanding of women’s freedom. The religious exemptions as defined by the current administration appropriately counter this.”

In the other decision issued Wednesday, which combined the cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Darryl Biel, the court ruled that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to teachers whose duties include instruction in religion at schools run by churches. The 7-2 ruling also saw Ginsburg and Sotomayor in the dissent.

Both cases involved schools in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. At one, teacher Agnes Morrisey-Berru brought an age discrimination lawsuit against Our Lady of Guadalupe School after she was fired. The school, however, maintains that it based its decisions on classroom performance. In the other case, St. James School declined to renew Kristen Biel’s contract after a year at the school. The teacher filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was let go because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain treatment for breast cancer. The school maintains that the decision was based on poor performance.

When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow, said the ruling.

“It is instructive to consider why a church’s independence on matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ requires the authority to select, supervise, and if necessary, remove a minister without interference by secular authorities,” the majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito, said. “Without that power, a wayward minister’s preaching, teaching, and counseling could contradict the church’s tenets and lead the congregation away from the faith. The ministerial exception was recognized to preserve a church’s independent authority in such matters.”

Adrian Alarcon, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools, 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,” Catholic News Service reported.

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said at the time of the oral arguments that 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.”

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