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SCOTUS Gives Religious Exemptions Wide Berth in Two Key Employment Rulings

Education Publications

On July 8, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two 7-2 decisions involving religious exemptions to federal employment and benefits laws.

In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrisey-Berru, the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Alito (Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, dissenting) held that the “ministerial exception,” which bars  employees who hold certain important positions within religious institutions from suing the institution under certain federal anti-discrimination laws, foreclosed two Catholic school teachers from suing the school where they were employed. Previously, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the ministerial exception typically only applied when an employee played a religious leadership role and that the two teachers did not embody that type of role when they “[taught] religion from a book.” The Supreme Court disagreed, and reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, reasoning that while the teachers in question were not ordained ministers, the ministerial exception still applied because they played a significant role in teaching religion to students. The Court declined to adopt a rigid formula for determining when the ministerial exemption applied and instead relied on a number of factors in coming to its decision, writing that whether an employee has the title of “minister” or other religious leader is not alone enough to determine whether the ministerial exemption applies. This holding is significant for religious institutions, including parochial schools, as the Court’s holding means that the ministerial exemption applies to a much broader group of employees than just ordained ministers or religious leaders.

The second case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court today, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, upheld the Trump administration’s religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive mandate. The ACA’s contraceptive mandate requires most employers to provide health insurance to employees that includes coverage for certain types of contraceptives. However, in 2017, the Trump administration issued new rules that allowed for an exemption from the general mandate that allowed private employers with religious or moral objections to opt out of providing the required coverage. In a 7-2 opinion authored by Justice Thomas (Sotomayor and Ginsburg, dissenting), the Court ultimately upheld President Trump’s rule exempting Little Sisters of the Poor (and other religious groups) from the mandate to provide contraception in health care plans. In doing so, the Court reasoned that the exemptions created by the new rules do not violate the ACA, as the ACA only requires employers to provide coverage for “additional preventive care and screenings” for women and does not expressly state that coverage for contraceptives is required. Therefore, the Court determined that the Trump administration “had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption.” Accordingly, private employers with legitimate moral or religious objections to the ACA’s coverage mandate have discretion to evaluate the types of coverage offered through their health care plans.

For more information on the Court’s decisions in these two cases and impacts on your organization or institution, contact any Franczek attorney.