Supreme Court rules in favor of Little Sisters of the Poor and protects religious schools from lawsuits

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The United States Supreme Court gave President Trump a win on a case that expanded birth control exemptions for employers under the Affordable Care Act.

The 7-2 decision on Wednesday found that the Trump administration acted lawfully in the move that allowed companies with religious or moral objections to birth control to opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage for their employees.

A nationwide injunction had put the exemptions on hold but the Court’s ruling in the ObamaCare contraceptive case “vindicated” the Little Sisters of the Poor for a second time, Andrew Napolitano said on Fox News Wednesday. The Catholic religious order had already appeared before the high court in the years-long dispute over the Obama-era mandate.

In a 2017 executive order, the president had ordered that the group was protected from “undue interference from the federal government.”

The administration doubled down on the exemptions to religious nonprofit groups a year later under Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. But Trump’s administration was sued by the New Jersey and Pennsylvania state governments.

“We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption. We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority Wednesday.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

“In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. 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.

In another case decided Wednesday, the Court sided with religious schools in discrimination lawsuits, expanding what is known as the “ministerial exception” in the 7-2 decision.

“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 in the court’s opinion.

“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,” he added.

Former teachers from Los Angeles-area Catholic schools had brought the lawsuit claiming they were discriminated against. Agnes Morrissey-Berru alleged that her contract was not renewed and now-deceased Kristen Biel had lost her job after needing to take time off for breast cancer treatment. Both had taught religion classes at the schools.

The “ministerial exception” applied in their cases even though they were not actually members of the clergy, the Supreme Court ruled.

“The independence of religious institutions in matters of ‘faith and doctrine’ is closely linked to independence in what we have termed ‘matters of church government,’” Alito wrote. “This does not mean that religious institutions enjoy a general immunity from secular laws, but it does protect their autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission. And a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.”

“Take the question of the title ‘minister,’” Alito wrote. “Simply giving an employee the title of ‘minister’ is not enough to justify the exception. And by the same token, since many religious traditions do not use the title ‘minister,’ it cannot be a necessary requirement. Requiring the use of the title would constitute impermissible discrimination, and this problem cannot be solved simply by including positions that are thought to be the counterparts of a ‘minister,’ such as priests, nuns, rabbis, and imams.”

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred and was joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Civil courts should “defer to religious organizations’ good-faith claims that a certain employee’s position is ‘ministerial'” because “judges lack the requisite understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition,” the concurring opinion stated.

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Frieda Powers

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