Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, D.C. (BNM) - In two decisions, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld religious liberty, July 8. One decision addressed religious organizations' employment practices. The other decision affirmed protections for religious objections to specific insurance mandates. In its 7-2 decision, justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.

Prompting the first opinion, two fifth-grade teachers had sued their religious school employers. They claimed wrongful termination after having their teaching contracts non-renewed. After appeals, their cases landed on the Supreme Court's docket. The Court issued the opinion under the title "Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morressey-Berru."

The Court affirmed and expanded religious protections that prevent judicial interference in the employment practices of religious institutions. The protections only relate to individuals in "certain important positions." A customary "ministerial exemption" usually identifies those "important positions." 

However, determining who falls under the "ministerial exemption" became a disputed issue. SCOTUS expanded the "ministerial exemption's" use broader than some expected, strengthening the First Amendment. The decision declared unconstitutional court intervention in a wider range of situations than previously defined.

The Court faced the question of "whether the First Amendment permits courts to intervene in employment disputes involving teachers at religious schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith." Justice Alito, delivering the Court's opinion, concluded, "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."

At issue in the Court's deliberation was how broadly the First Amendment protects religious institutions' employment practices. One argument claimed that only in matters regarding individuals who held a ministerial title, possessed significant ministerial training, and self-presented themselves as ministers were exempt from judicial intervention in employment claims. The Supreme Court rejected those criteria as unjustifiably narrow.

Instead, the Court ruled that rather than that "rigid formula," "What matters is what an employee does." "A religious institution's explanation of the role of its employees in the life of the religion in question is important," it said. The Court decided that religious institutions are exempt from unconstitutional judicial intervention whenever an employee is engaged in helping a religion "carry out its mission." The new judicial test significantly widened the umbrella of practices protected by the First Amendment.

Russell Moore said of the decision, "If a religious organization cannot recruit leaders who agree with the beliefs and practices of those organizations, then there can be no true religious freedom. The Court recognized that today. This, then, is a win not just for religious people and organizations, but for all Americans." Moore serves as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

In another case, the Court upheld two Affordable Care Act rules issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That opinion was also released on July 8. The two rules expanded a church exemption to the department's "abortion mandate" to include employers and provided a moral exemption for employers. The rules allow employers and religious organizations to craft insurance plans for employees without including contraceptive and abortion benefits that violate their religious beliefs. Other ACA provisions still apply.

The two rules resulted from conflicts between abortion insurance coverage advocates and opponents. In the final challenge to the rules, Pennsylvania and New Jersey had sued to invalidate them based on procedural and authority arguments. The Court rejected all of their claims, clearing the way for them to take effect. The Court published the opinion under the case title "Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania Et. Al."

Though the ACA did not contain any abortion mandate when signed into law, later rulemaking included it. Religious organizations sought exemptions and eventually sued for complete exemptions to the mandate. Abortion coverage proponents opposed the rules, favoring mandated abortion coverages. Resolving the issue has taken at least seven years of court cases and two Supreme Court decisions.

Soon after the decision was released, the ERLC issued a statement. Moore said, "This Supreme Court decision upholds one of the most important principles of the American experiment in liberty: that the state does not own the consciences of human beings." The ERLC filed or joined amicus briefs in both cases before the Supreme Court.

Kevin Parker is editor of the Baptist New Mexican news journal and GoBNM.com, news and information outlets for the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.

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