Across the nation, competitions are beginning to heat up again. The National Women’s Soccer League has been playing since June, the men’s league (MLS) began play last week, and the NBA and MLB are scheduled to begin at the end of July. Regardless of how these tournaments shake out, religious employers look to be one of the big winners of the summer.
On July 8th, religious employers were handed victories in the Supreme Court in two separate decisions (both decided 7-2). These decisions state that:
- Employers may deny contraceptives in their workplace health plans due to religious or moral objections
- Religious institutions are not required to follow workplace bias laws when dealing with religious leaders AND employees that perform similar duties
At the heart of this decision was a Trump Administration rule exempting employers with religious or moral objections from providing birth control as part of their employees’ health plans. This rule challenged an Obama Administration rule which exempted houses of worship from providing birth control, but did not extend to other employers. Under the Obama Administration rule, non-profit entities such as hospitals and schools could opt out of providing birth control for their employees, but these organizations were still required to notify their insurance provider, so that their employees could be provided with birth control under a separate plan.
After Wednesday’s ruling, non-profit organizations such as these (as well as nearly all for-profit businesses) will be able to deny birth control to their employees. They also will not be required to notify their insurance provider; in the same way that houses of worship were not required under the previous administration. Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Roberts, and Thomas formed the majority in this decision; Justices Kagan and Breyer concurred with the majority.
In the concurring opinion, however, Justice Kagan noted that “whether the exemptions can survive administrative law’s demand for reasoned decision making…remains open for the lower courts to address.” Given this, coupled with the upcoming elections in November, it remains to be seen if these employer exemptions have staying power.
In this decision, two teachers that had been fired by California parochial schools, brought discrimination charges against their former employers. One teacher claimed that she had been fired because of age discrimination, while the other claimed that she was fired as the result of a cancer diagnosis, therefore violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The schools argued that even if these charges were true, federal employment laws do not cover these employees because of the “ministerial exception.” Established in a 2012 Supreme Court decision, this exception prevents ministers and other church leaders from suing religious institutions under workplace discrimination claims.
Up until this point, lower courts have ruled that teachers such as the two women who were fired, were covered under federal law. The Supreme Court on Wednesday, however, ruled that because the teachers served similar functions to ministers (teaching courses in religion & leading prayer), they fell under the “ministerial exception.”
As Justice Alito, writing for the majority, put it: “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.”
It is important to keep in mind that the expanded “ministerial exception” does not extend to employees that have no religious responsibilities, such as custodial staff. These employees are still covered by federal law.
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