Are you a legal professional? Visit our professional site

Search for legal issues
For help near (city, ZIP code or county)
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location

SCOTUS Issues Two Big Religious Liberty Rulings. What Do They Mean For Regular Folks?

1083710092
By Ashley Ravid on July 10, 2020 1:09 PM

As rights to contraceptive access, abortion freedom, gay marriage, and more have been advanced and affirmed by courts across the nation, one particular exception looms large in many of these cases: religious freedom.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court passed down two 7-2 rulings hailed as victories for religious liberty advocates. One upholds "ministerial exception[s]" for religious schools, which protect them against some forms of government regulation, and another decided that employers had the right to reject providing insurance coverage for their employees' contraceptive care. But what do these rulings really signify for the rights of the public?

Ministerial Exceptions

Ministerial exceptions are derived from the First Amendment right to religious freedom, and mainly make religious organizations and institutions — not just ministers — exempt from some federal statutes, such as anti-discrimination laws.

In this latest case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (2020), the Supreme Court held that former teachers at two California religious schools could not sue the schools for wrongful termination due to discrimination against age and disability status due to cancer diagnosis, respectively. Though neither of the teachers is technically a minister, both taught daily religious classes to their students, demonstrating the wide reach that the ministerial exception can have.

This open-ended interpretation of the ministerial exception against government interference means mainly that it will be vastly more difficult for teachers to bring discrimination suits against religious schools because of this ruling, even if they are what you would normally consider clear violations of federal laws. Teachers at religious schools will likely be unable to sue for race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other types of discrimination because of the precedent set by this case.

As a result of the Court's ruling, it may be possible that the ministerial exemption will be interpreted to apply to even more institutions and cases.

Contraceptive Care and Employment-Based Insurance

Since its introduction, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) has faced scrutiny, especially by the Trump administration, which has long taken issue with the ACA mandating that employers provide cost-free coverage for birth control for their employees.

The recent decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania (2020) has yielded a victory for people opposed to contraceptives, as the Court ruled that employers have the right to withhold contraceptive insurance coverage from their employees for religious and moral reasons.

The New York Times reports that as many as 126,000 women may now lose access to contraceptives following this ruling. Despite the stripping of federal rights guarantees for teachers and employees, this latest pair of Supreme Court rulings are considered victories for those advocating religious liberty free from government interference.

From the right to purchase a wedding cake to the right to not vaccinate children, religious exemptions can be applied to a wide variety of federal and local laws, though the interpretation of religious exemption claims varies and does not always depend on the political leanings of Supreme Court justices. In any case, Wednesday's decisions served as a definite victory for advocates of religious liberty in the United States. Which "side" of the debate will win their next match remains to be seen.

Related Resources:

Find a Lawyer

More Options