Supreme Court issues rulings affecting abortion and religious liberty

July 3, 2020

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court issued rulings in two significant cases involving abortion and religious liberty. Here is what you should know about those cases.

The Case: June Medical Services v. Russo

The Background: In this case the justices were asked to consider a state law designed to protect women from the dangers practices of abortion clinics, Louisiana Act 620. This law was introduced by a Democratic lawmaker and passed through the Louisiana state legislature in 2014 with wide bipartisan support. The law required doctors performing abortions to have active admitting privileges at a hospital located no further than thirty miles from the location at which the abortion is performed or induced. This would ensure that women seeking an abortion could be quickly transferred in the event of medical complications. Every other surgical outpatient medical provider is required to have hospital admitting privileges—this law simply holds abortion clinics to the same standards of medical care that every other medical provider in Louisiana is required to abide.

The Ruling: In a 5-4 decision, the court applied and upheld the prior precedents in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which established the “undue burden” precedent, and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down a Texas law on medical standards similar to Louisiana’s under consideration today. Taken together, these cases hold that a state cannot even enact reasonable public health regulations on the abortion industry if a court finds that those regulations place an “undue burden” on the ability of women to obtain abortions.

The Significance: The Court’s opinion means that states still face significant limitations on regulating the abortion industry. Their lobby now has one more court decision to reinforce the argument that because new regulations may reduce the availability of abortion clinics it therefore imposes an undue burden on the so-called right to the procedure. This case will affect the pro-life movement’s state legislative and litigation strategy as well.

The ERLC Quote: “This decision is disappointing and wrong-headed,” said ERLC president Russell Moore. “The Louisiana law was directed toward the simple goal of protecting women from danger by placing the most minimal restrictions possible on an abortion industry that insists on laissez-faire for itself and its profits. Nonetheless, we will continue to seek an America where vulnerable persons, including unborn children and their mothers, are seen as precious, not disposable.”

For more on this case, see also:

Explainer: The Supreme Court refuses to protect women from the dangerous practices of the abortion industry

Top Quotes from the June Medical Services v. Russo decision


The Case: Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue Decision 

The Background: This case involved a generally available scholarship program in Montana designed to provide general support to students attending all types of private schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue refused to allow the scholarship money to be used at religious schools. This case answers the question whether or not barring students from using the scholarship money at religious schools violates the Religion Clauses or the Equal Protection Clause.

The Ruling: In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Montana could not cut families off from a scholarship program available to all because they wanted to send their children to religious schools.

The Significance:  This case comes as a follow-up to the 2017 religious liberty victory in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, where the Court ruled that the state of Missouri violated the Free Exercise Clause when it excluded a church preschool from a general program to purchase recycled tires and resurface its playground simply because it was a religious institution. The Court took a similar approach today as they did in Trinity Lutheran, ruling, in Chief Justice Roberts words, that, “The Free Exercise Clause protects against even ‘indirect coercion,’ and a State ‘punishe[s] the free exercise of religion’ by disqualifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here.”

The ERLC Quote: “The Supreme Court made the right decision today,” said ERLC president Russell Moore. “These scholarships were not a funding of religion, nor an entanglement of the state with the church. The issue here is whether a state-established scholarship program for private schools could discriminate against parents who chose to send their children to private schools that happen to be religious. This ruling is consistent with long-held American principles, reaffirmed in recent years in cases such as Trinity Lutheran. Blaine Amendments have not advanced the cause of keeping distinction between the church and the state, but instead have resulted in often arbitrary and incoherent policies that are needlessly discriminatory. As a Baptist committed to a free church in a free state, and to the separation of church and state, I believe this ruling maintains those right freedoms and boundaries. The Supreme Court should be commended for this decision.” 

For more on this case, see also:

Explainer: Supreme Court strikes down discrimination against families in religious schools

Top Quotes from the Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue Decision