Article

5 Supreme Court cases to keep your eye on

May 08, 2020

No corner of society is exempt as our nation grapples with the complexities of work during a pandemic. Our church services and school classes moved online. Americans in every industry had the hours of their shifts change, are working from home, or, sadly, for tens of millions, were laid off as jobs evaporated. In Washington, D.C., Congress is in and out of recess, balancing the need to legislate with the safety of its members and staff. Most executive branch employees, whose work is not directly related to the coronavirus response, are also working remotely. And beginning this week, the Supreme Court traded in the bench and marble columns for a conference call line.

The Supreme Court is famous for its tradition and decorum. The court kept their proceedings insulated to those in the room even through decades of technology advances that placed the Senate floor live on CSPAN and White House meetings as they happen on Fox News. There are no cameras in the courtroom. Press and the public who make it inside take notes with a pen and paper. The audio of the oral arguments is recorded and released with a transcript after the gavel strikes.

This makes what began on Monday of this week all the more remarkable. The nine justices dialed in to connect by phone with the lawyers whose cases they would hear, and the public was able to listen in real time. The Supreme Court adapted to the circumstances and carries on with its work.

This year’s docket is full of significant cases for issues the ERLC engages ranging from religious liberty to medical standards in abortion clinics to the defintion of “sex” in civil rights law. The following is an overview of some of the key cases on which the ERLC filed an amicus brief, also referred to as a “friend of the court” brief, and will be decided in the coming months.

Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Two of these cases of interest will be heard and decided between May and June. The first is Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was heard this week on May 6. This case, yet again, considers the religious exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate. Although such an exemption to this mandate was previously honored for religious organizations like the Catholic Ministry, Little Sisters, a few states sued in federal court to remove it. Jeff Pickering of our Washington, D.C., office covered the arguments in an article earlier this week. We are urging the court to guarantee this religious exemption and protection of conscience once and for all, consistent with their prior 2016 ruling.  

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey Beru

The second case to be heard this month is Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morissey Beru, set for oral arguments on May 11. After the contract of a teacher performing religious functions at a faith-based school was not renewed—the reason given by the school was poor performance—the teacher sued. This case debates whether the First Amendment’s religion clause allows courts to second-guess a religious organization’s employment decisions when the employee performs religious duties. The ERLC filed an amicus brief asking the court to maintain protections of the ministerial exception and to protect religious schools from this kind of government intervention.  

Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC

The Court will also be ruling this term on Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, which was consolidated with two others, Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia and Altitude Express v. Zarda. This set of cases raises the question of the meaning of the word “sex” under federal civil rights law dealing with employment discrimination. The Court will be answering the question of whether Title VII prohibits discrimation based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This opinion could have sweeping effects, and the issues at stake will continue to fuel legislative battles following the opinion. The ERLC filed an amicus brief in these cases alongside other religious institutions that contend "sex" in Title VII does not include either classification of orientation or identity. 

June Medical Services LLC v. Russo

The next case the ERLC filed an amicus brief on is June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. This case seeks to determine the constitutionality of a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to meet the same medical standards as all other ambulatory surgical centers, which includes securing admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. This case is the first time the Supreme Court has taken up an abortion-related case since the addition of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. While this ruling could have an impact on the viability of abortion clinics to remain open in Louisiana, that’s not the primary issue the justices are asked to consider. The ERLC’s brief argues that this case is simple: states have the right and responsibility to ensure the safety of their citizens. This includes protecting women from the haphazard practices of abortion clinics that not only kill unborn children, but also prey upon women in crisis. We hope that the court will uphold this common sense law that simply brings abortion clinics in line with the same safety standards applicable to all others in the medical community they claim to belong to.  

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue

The final case, which has already been argued and an opinion is pending, is Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. This case deals with the ability of student aid to be used at private religious schools. The ERLC filed an amicus brief arguing that religious organizations should not be discriminated against and should be eligible for generally available and religiously neutral student aid. This case is an important opportunity for the court to protect students from religious discrimination.  

While we worked diligently and now pray earnestly that the Supreme Court will make decisions that uphold life, religious liberty, and the freedom of conscience, we ultimately place our trust in God to fulfil his plans and use us along the way. As the psalmist declares, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psa. 20:7 NIV).

ERLC intern Hannah Daniel contributed to this article.