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July 9, 2020

Little Sisters Have Big Win in Supreme Court Decision; Court Also Rules Teachers are ‘Ministers’

Little Sisters of the Poor are seen outside the Supreme Court in March of 2016 for the Zubik v. Burwell case. ADDIE MENA/CNA

Little Sisters of the Poor are seen outside the Supreme Court in March of 2016 for the Zubik v. Burwell case.
ADDIE MENA/CNA

In two rulings on July 8, the Supreme Court affirmed religious liberty, ruling in cases for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers.

The Little Sisters of the Poor had a victory at the Supreme Court nine years into the religious order’s bouts of litigation over the Obama-era “contraception mandate” which obliged employers to provide for contraceptive coverage for employees through their health care plans.

“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,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas for the majority.

“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.”

In a 7-2 decision, the Court’s majority sided with the sisters in the latest round of lawsuits against them over the mandate, this time brought by the states of Pennsylvania and California, who argued that the exemption crafted by the Trump administration for organizations with religious or moral objections to the mandate shifted the cost of providing contraceptive coverage to the states and was procedurally flawed.

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

The near decade-long court battle of the Little Sisters of the Poor dates back to 2011, when the Obama administration required employers to provide cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and “emergency birth control” in employee health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Although the Obama administration granted an “accommodation” to the Little Sisters and other objecting religious non-profits, the sisters sued the government in 2013 saying the process still required them to essentially give a “permission slip” for contraceptive coverage to be delivered through their health plans.

In 2016, a divided Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts and instructed both the administration and the non-profits to reach a compromise where cost-free contraceptive coverage could still be offered to employees while respecting the moral objections of religious groups.

In 2017, the Trump administration granted a religious and moral exemption to the mandate for the sisters and other objecting groups, but then the states of Pennsylvania and California filed lawsuits saying that the burden of providing coverage was being shifted onto the states and claiming that the administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act in setting up the exemption.

The Supreme Court took up their case against the states in January, hearing arguments by phone in April following the coronavirus pandemic.

Teachers are ‘Ministers’

The Supreme Court delivered a long-awaited religious liberty decision on the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers. The court found in favor of two Catholic schools in California, ruling that a “ministerial exception” to government interference applies to teachers in religious schools.

The July 8 ruling came in the consolidated cases of Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. The justices ruled in a 7-2 decision that teachers at Catholic grade schools qualified for the “ministers exception” established by the court in the 2012 Hosana Tabor case.

“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,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito for the majority.

“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.”

The two California Catholic schools did not renew the contracts of the teachers in 2014 and 2015. In separate cases combined by the Supreme Court, the teachers alleged that their dismissals were based on disability and age, not poor performance. The schools claimed they were exempt from employment discrimination laws under the ministerial exception, the legal doctrine under which government cannot interfere in the employment decisions of churches and religious institutions regarding the hiring and firing of ministers.

In both cases, the teachers’ suits were dismissed by federal courts, and then reinstated by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the combined case in May, lawyers for the schools argued that “for hours on end over the course of a week,” teachers in Catholic schools were the “primary agents” by which the faith was taught to students. Argument – and questions from the bench – focused on how broadly the ministerial exception could be applied to the employees of religious schools.

The decision comes just weeks after the court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, that employers cannot fire employees because of their sexual orientation or “gender identity.” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in that case, acknowledged that religious freedom cases related to the decision would probably come before the Court in the future.

The decision about who qualifies as a minister could directly impact future cases in which teachers might be dismissed for failing to adhere to Church teachings on same-sex marriage or transgender issues, both of which have been subjects of controversy in recent months.

“Requiring the use of the title [minister] would constitute impermissible discrimination,” the court ruled. Referencing the previous decision in Hosana Tabor, Altio wrote that there must be “a recognition that educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”

The verdict also explicitly referenced the policy of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, home to both of the schools designating all teachers in Catholic schools as being effectively ministers.

“Like all teachers in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Morrissey-Berru was “considered a catechist,” i.e., “a teacher of religion,” Alito noted in his decision for the majority.

“There is abundant record evidence that [both teachers] performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility.”

The court concluded that “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.”

Joining Alito in the majority decision were Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Sotomayer and Ginsburg dissented.

In a statement on the two rulings, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauded the decisions that affirm religious liberties.

“The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauds the Supreme Court’s decisions in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. In both cases, the Court reaffirmed the religious liberties guaranteed in the United States’ Constitution,” the statement said.

“These are incredibly important rulings for so many groups across the country,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “They take a big stand for religious liberty as a First Amendment freedom, which is continually being threatened. We are happy the Court has clearly recognized the importance of religious liberty to our nation.”

Catholic News Agency

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