NEW YORK — Conservative-leaning faith leaders and their allies, outspoken in recent years about what they consider infringements on religious liberties, cheered Wednesday as the Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings that protected certain rights of religious employers.
In Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the high court sided with two Catholic schools in finding that certain employees of religious schools, hospitals and social service centers can’t sue for employment discrimination. Critics fear the 7-2 ruling will embolden some religious organizations to fire or otherwise discriminate against LGBTQ employees.
And in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, also decided 7-2, the court upheld the Trump administration’s allowance for a broad religious or moral exemption from the Obama-era Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide free contraception. Opponents say the decision could leave more than 70,000 women without it.
Vice President Mike Pence reflected the victorious mood on the religious right with a politically tinged tweet underscoring the centrality of President Donald Trump’s courtship of conservative, faith-focused voters ahead of November’s election.
“Two Big WINS for Religious Freedom at SCOTUS today. All Americans of faith can be assured that under President @realDonaldTrump, the Obama-Biden assault on religious liberty is over!”
Others hailing the rulings included the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the conservative Family Research Council.
By contrast, Roman Catholics who have urged their church to be more accepting of LGBTQ people were dismayed by the workplace ruling, warning that it could backfire if more faith-based employers were seen as discriminating in their hiring and firing.
“‘Religious exemption for discrimination’” makes as much sense as ‘ethical exemption for murder,’” tweeted Daniel Horan, a Franciscan friar who teaches at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. “History will not look kindly on Christianity’s recourse to state power to justify the dehumanization of others.”
The decisions were also decried by a number of secular groups, with women’s- and abortion-rights organizations in particular assailing the contraception decision.
“This is part of a larger effort to use religious freedom as a cover for discrimination & restrictions on reproductive healthcare,” tweeted the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights.
The religious workplace ruling comes less than a month after the Supreme Court extended protections against employment discrimination to LGBTQ workers, a 6-3 decision that left the door open to future religious exemptions. Some legal experts underscored that Wednesday’s decision gave broader — but still limited — leeway for faith-based organizations to make employment decisions without regard for discrimination claims.
Wednesday’s ruling clarified the type of employees a house of worship or related institution “basically has very broad power to hire and fire, in a way that makes clear the zone is fairly broad when it comes to teachers,” said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA School of Law professor.
That clarity “is not of unlimited breadth, but it is broader, and it does cover pretty much everybody who teaches religion” at a religious school, Volokh said, adding that the decision “definitely is a win for autonomy for religious institutions.”
Eric Rassbach, a senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who argued for the schools in the case, said that it should be viewed together with last month’s ruling.
The overall result “means the government is significantly limited and courts are significantly limited in how much they can intrude on the internal affairs of religious organizations,” Rassbach said.
He noted, however, that the question of whether the likes of gym teachers and other employees not involved in religious instruction would be covered by the ruling remains unresolved.
It’s unclear how widespread the effect of the decisions will prove to be.
Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ Catholics, urged church institutions not to view the ruling as empowering discriminatory practices.
“There is a difference between a legal right and doing what is morally right,” he said, warning Catholic leaders against decisions that could lead to the loss of “some of their best employees” and “what little respect lay Catholics still hold for the church’s leaders.”
Kristen Waggoner, general counsel at the conservative-leaning Alliance Defending Freedom, welcomed them both but does not predict a big increase in employers seeking a religious or moral exemption from the contraception mandate.
“Those who want to force those with moral and religious objections to violate those convictions always suggest there’s a slippery slope, or it’s going to open all kinds of harms, and that just hasn’t proven itself to be true,” she said.
Charlie Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, also welcomed both rulings, saying via email that they showed a respect for religious convictions at a time when American culture is increasingly secular.
“Religious freedom is really about carving out a space for all — whether religious or secular — to live according to their foundational beliefs and values,” he wrote.
The decisions’ political power was clear from the praise they drew from religious conservatives.
“I welcome the Supreme Court’s rulings to protect religious individuals, so they can live out their faith without being forced to violate their conscience,” Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton said in a statement.
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