Supreme Court Rulings Expand Exemptions for Religious Employers


The Supreme Court expanded exemptions for religious employers from health-care regulations and anti-discrimination laws Wednesday, extending a line of decisions that have elevated the rights of religious exercise and the role of sectarian institutions in American society.
In one case, the court ruled that the Trump administration had the legal power to exempt employers that raise religious or moral objections to the Affordable Care Act regulations requiring that health-insurance plans cover contraceptives, stripping the benefit from as many as 125,000 women employees. On the other, the court found that religious schools were immune from age and disability discrimination claims filed by lay teachers, saying courts shouldn’t interfere with how schools select teachers who educate students about the faith.
Both decisions came by 7-2 votes, with only the court’s most liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, in dissent. The rulings follow last week’s 5-4 decision requiring a state to give religious schools the same benefit it gives other private schools in a tax-credit program, despite a state constitutional provision barring public support for sectarian institutions.
Together, the latest religion rulings reflect a yearslong drive by the court’s conservative majority, on occasion joined by more liberal justices, toward a legal framework that grants religious institutions more freedom from public policies they oppose and more access to public benefits.The court said it would release the term’s final opinions on Thursday, likely deciding President Trump’s effort to stop his accountants and bankers from surrendering financial records subpoenaed by House investigators and a New York state grand jury.
“These decisions continue the Roberts Court’s campaign to ensure that religious actors are maximally protected,” said Cornell University law professor Nelson Tebbe.
The trend, Mr. Tebbe said, is clear: The court is strengthening the Constitution’s protections for the free exercise of religion while weakening a separate constitutional clause that prohibits government establishment of religion.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority decision approving Trump administration exceptions to the regulation requiring that employer-provided health insurance plans cover birth control with no out-of-pocket costs.
While churches already were exempt, there have been years of legal battles over whether other employers, including those with religious affiliations, must comply. The case marked the third time the high court has grappled with the issue.
The Obama administration had sought to find a workaround that would still provide women employees with coverage while relieving religious employers that objected from having to provide it. The Obama-era system required those employers to file a notice with the Department of Health and Human Services, triggering an alternate mechanism to provide coverage.
But some employers, including a Catholic religious order called Little Sisters of the Poor, complained that filing such forms made them complicit in their employees’ contraceptive practices. The Trump administration responded with regulations providing a blanket exemption from the coverage requirement for any employer, including for-profit and publicly traded corporations, that asserted religious or moral objections.
The Trump policy stripped the benefit from affected employees without providing an alternative.
The states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the blanket exemption, arguing it exceeded the administration’s power under the Affordable Care Act and violated the regulatory process required by the Administrative Procedure Act. Lower courts in Philadelphia agreed and blocked the plan from taking effect.
Justice Thomas observed that the contraceptive mandate isn’t part of the statute’s text, but was implemented under authority Congress gave to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to define essential care for women.

Demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday.

PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS
“The same capacious grant of authority that empowers HRSA to make these determinations leaves its discretion equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own Guidelines,” he wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, agreed. But they stressed that the court had left unresolved another argument by the states—that the Trump policy was unreasonable—and suggested the plaintiffs’ position might prevail when the case returns to the lower courts.
In dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, complained that the majority forced women employees to pay the cost of their employers’ religious beliefs.
“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. Congress, she said, had set the stage for women to have ready access to contraceptives and other preventive measures that safeguard their health and allow them “to chart their own life’s course.”
The Trump administration cheered the outcome.
“Ensuring that women receive the healthcare they need does not require banishing religious groups that refuse to surrender their beliefs from the public square,” the White House said in a statement, adding that it was allowing women to access care in other ways.
Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters said the ruling means that the contraception mandate “will no longer steal our attention from our calling” to serve the elderly poor.
“No employer should deny their employees medicine based only on the employer’s personal beliefs,” responded Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat. He pledged to press other arguments in the lower courts.
As a practical matter, however, voters will likely have the next word. If November’s election hands the White House to the likely Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, the regulation could be rolled back. And if Democrats take control of the Senate, additional legislation expanding reproductive rights is possible.
“We now look to Congress to act swiftly to ensure that only workers and students, not their bosses or universities, have the authority to decide what health-care choices are appropriate,” said Lourdes Rivera, a senior vice president with the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Justice Alito wrote the school's case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, concluding that First Amendment religion guarantees immunized the schools from the teachers’ discrimination claims.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
In dissent, Justice Sotomayor framed it differently.
“Two employers fired their employees allegedly because one had breast cancer and the other was elderly,” she wrote, joined by Justice Ginsburg. She lamented that “because the employees taught short religion modules at Catholic elementary schools,” they now “could be fired for any reason, whether religious or non-religious, benign or bigoted, without legal recourse.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court recognized a “ministerial exception” to antidiscrimination law, reasoning that religious-freedom rights bar the government from a role in selecting members of the clergy, even indirectly by allowing private lawsuits over practices that are illegal in other workplaces.
Wednesday’s ruling expands that principle to lay teachers who perform “important religious functions,” such as parochial-school teachers who provide instruction in the Catholic religion alongside other subjects.
“What matters, at the bottom, is what an employee does,” Justice Alito wrote, not the formal title she carries.
The decision involves separate lawsuits by teachers alleging disability or age discrimination by parochial schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In one case, St. James School in Torrance, Calif., declined to renew teacher Kristen Biel’s contract after she told superiors she had contracted breast cancer and required time off for treatment. She died in 2019 and her widower continued the lawsuit.

Kristen Biel at her graduation party with her husband and their two children in 2009. After she died in 2019, her widower continued her discrimination lawsuit.

PHOTO: BIEL FAMILY/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The other case was filed by Agnes Morrissey-Berru, whose contract wasn’t renewed by Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Hermosa Beach, Calif. after she entered her 60s.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, had found the discrimination claims could proceed, in part because the teachers didn’t have the title of minister.
Adrian Alarcon, the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Catholic Schools, said that religious schools play an integral role in passing the faith to the next generation of believers and that the Supreme Court “recognized faith groups must be free to make their own decisions about who should be entrusted with these essential duties.”
Jeffrey Fisher, a lawyer for the teachers, said his clients “are deeply disappointed in today’s decision and hope the court declines in any future case to extend the right of religious schools to discriminate beyond teachers who teach religion as part of the curriculum.”
The Supreme Court ruled broadly Wednesday in favor of the religious rights of employers in two cases that could leave more than 70,000 women without free contraception and tens of thousands of people with no way to sue for job discrimination.
In both cases the court ruled 7-2, with two liberal justices joining conservatives in favor of the Trump administration and religious employers.
In the more prominent of the two cases, involving President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the justices greenlighted changes the Trump administration had sought. The administration announced in 2017 that it would allow more employers to opt-out of providing the no-cost birth control coverage required under the law, but lower courts had blocked the changes.
The ruling is a significant election-year win for President Donald Trump, who counts on heavy support from evangelicals and other Christian groups for votes and policy backing. It was also good news for the administration, which in recent weeks has seen headline-making Supreme Court decisions go against its positions.
Another particularly important decision for Trump is ahead. The justices are expected to announce Thursday whether Congress and the Manhattan district attorney can see the president’s taxes and other financial records he has fought to keep private.
In its second big ruling on Wednesday, the court sided with two Catholic schools in California in a decision underscoring that certain employees of religious schools can’t sue for employment discrimination.
Lay teachers whose contracts had not been renewed had sued their schools. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion: “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.”
The court’s birth-control decision was cheered by conservative groups, and White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany joined in. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a big win for religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” she said in a statement.
Liberal groups and Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, decried the decision, which she called a “fundamental misreading” of the health care law. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the decision will make it “easier for the Trump-Pence Administration to continue to strip health care from women.”
The Trump administration is still seeking to overturn Obama’s Affordable Care Act in its entirety. It has joined Texas and other Republican-led states in calling on the justices to do just that. The case is scheduled to be argued in the court term that begins in October.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority of the court, said in Wednesday’s decision that the administration has the authority to make its birth-control coverage changes and followed appropriate procedures in doing so.
The government has estimated that the rule changes would cause between 70,000 women and 126,000 women to lose contraception coverage in one year.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited those numbers in dissenting.
“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 a dissent joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Birth control coverage has been a topic of contention since the health care law was passed.
“The ACA’s contraceptive mandate ... has existed for approximately nine years. Litigation surrounding that requirement has lasted nearly as long,” Thomas wrote.
Initially, churches, synagogues, and mosques were exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement. The Obama administration also created a way by which religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, universities, and charities could opt out of paying for contraception, but women on their health plans would still get no-cost birth control. Some groups complained the opt-out process itself violated their religious beliefs, and years of legal wrangling followed.
After Trump took office, officials announced changes. Under a new policy issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, can opt-out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious objections. The policy also allows some employers, though not publicly traded companies, to raise moral objections and do the same.
The changes were blocked by courts after New Jersey and Pennsylvania challenged them.
Future administrations could attempt to alter the Trump administration rules. And two liberal justices who sided with the administration, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, suggested the legal fight over the administration’s changes may continue.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement after the ruling, “This fight is not over.”
In the religious-schools discrimination case, the court had ruled unanimously in 2012 that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination, but the justices didn’t rigidly define who counts as a minister.