Supreme Court issues two rulings protecting religious liberty

July 10, 2020

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

The case: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

The background: In this case, a teacher’s contract was discontinued due to exhibiting poor performance. The teacher sued in federal court claiming she had been discriminated against, challenging the school’s right to select their teachers under the ministerial exception. The teacher argued that she should not be considered a minister under the ministerial exemption. However, her job entailed a number of religious duties including daily prayer, preparing the students for Catholic mass, and providing a faith-based education steeped in the Catholic tradition. 

The ruling: In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception applies to teachers employed by religious schools. The Court restated and expanded its holding in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, holding that governments and the courts may not interfere with the hiring practices of religious organizations.

The significance: The case highlights the importance of preventing government intrusion into the employment practices of religious institutions. Religious autonomy in matters of employment and governance is a fundamental right bestowed upon faith-based organizations in the First Amendment. If secular courts are allowed to second guess religious organizations’ hiring practices, then religious organizations’ autonomy is essentially void.

The ERLC quote: “Jesus told us that we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s,” said ERLC President Russell Moore

“Caesar tends to demand what doesn’t belong to him. The Supreme Court was right today to affirm the separate sphere of religious institutions in carrying out their mission from the dictation of the state. This 7-2 ruling is crucial in reaffirming the religious liberty advocated by early American Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland in coalition with founding leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 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.”

For more on this case, see also:

Explainer: The Supreme Court reaffirms hiring protections for religious employers


The case: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

The background: In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which contained a provision known as the contraceptive mandate that compels employers to include contraceptives and abortifacients in their health care plans. While houses of worship were exempt from this mandate, faith-based organizations were not granted an exemption from the contraceptive mandate. In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) adopted new regulations that provided protections for religious objectors to the contraceptive mandate. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania and New Jersey sued HHS, arguing that these rules should be struck down because they interfere with the government’s interest in providing access to contraception and alleging that the rules violated the ACA and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Without this exemption, the contraception mandate would coerce a group of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, along with other religious organizations, to provide contraceptive coverage despite their sincerely held religious objections. 

The ruling: In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court held that that the Little Sisters of the Poor do not have to violate their consciences, upholding two rules issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provide an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate on religious and moral grounds.

The significance: This case reaffirms that the government cannot pave over the consciences of religious organizations in pursuit of a policy goal when the government has other options for achieving that goal that do not infringe religious liberty. The right of religious organizations to operate in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. Today’s ruling also charts a path forward for public policy debates where Americans disagree about fundamental truths. 

The ERLC quote: “This victory for the Little Sisters of the Poor is a win for all Americans,” said ERLC president Russell Moore

“Today the Supreme Court held, once again, that the government cannot force a group of nuns to provide contraceptives that violate their religious beliefs. The Little Sisters never wanted to be in court, and are not in any way political activists. All they want is to carry out their mission of serving the poorest and most vulnerable among us. One need not agree with the Sisters on their theological or moral beliefs to recognize that a free country should allow them to serve without state harassment. This is especially true since it was demonstrated, again and again, that the government’s policy of contraceptive availability, could be achieved by other means.”

For more on this case, see also:

Explainer: The Supreme Court rules nuns do not have to ‘violate their religious beliefs’ to serve

Top Quotes: Supreme Court rules nuns do not have to ‘violate their religious beliefs’ to serve