WASHINGTON, DC — The Supreme Court issued two important decisions today that significantly change the relationship between freedom of religion and anti-discrimination protections.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court ruled 7 to 2, in an opinion authored by Justice Alito, in favor of two religious schools who argued that they had a constitutionally protected right to fire teachers whose duties included teaching religion, even if the schools' actions would otherwise violate federal anti-discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination based on age or disability. The Court held that religious employers may avoid anti-discrimination laws that protect employees if the employer believes that particular employees play an "important" religious role. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.
"While the immediate impact of the Court's ruling is limited to teachers who were required to teach religion and lead prayers as part of their duties, the Court's analysis is disturbingly broad and appears to open the door to sweeping new exemptions to anti-discrimination laws," said Shannon Minter, NCLR Legal Director. "Depending on how the Court applies this decision in future cases, it may enable religious employers to evade civil rights laws simply by claiming that virtually any employee is somehow fulfilling an important religious function. Protecting religious liberty is important, but this decision goes too far and leaves far too many employees vulnerable to being fired or abused for reasons that have nothing to do with religious beliefs. The ruling is particularly harmful for LGBT employees who already face a pervasive threat of being singled out for discriminatory treatment by religious schools and other religious employers.
"Coming so soon on the heels of the Court's recent decision in Bostock, which held that LGBT workers are protected under Title VII, today's decision effectively takes away with one hand what it gave with the other for the many LGBT people who work for religious employers. For these LGBT workers, the victory in Bostock may end up meaning very little if a religious employer can fire them at will merely by invoking today's decision."
In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Court, in a 7 to 2 opinion authored by Justice Thomas, upheld the Trump administration's promulgation of a rule creating extremely broad exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's requirement that all health insurance plans must provide contraceptive coverage to female employees. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.
"The Court today gave a green light to the Trump administration's rules that grant sweeping religious and moral exemptions to employers who want to deny their employees coverage for birth control, a benefit otherwise guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act," said Julianna S. Gonen, NCLR Federal Policy Director. "While prior regulations and court decisions had limited such exemptions to religious entities or companies controlled by a small group of people with shared religious beliefs, today's decision allows any employer to cite religious or moral objections and withhold coverage for essential preventive services. Women should not have their health care decisions dictated by the beliefs of their bosses. We are gravely troubled that the Court has once again allowed religious beliefs to trump access to reproductive health care."
The National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR ) is a national legal organization committed to advancing the human and civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. Since its founding, NCLR has maintained a longstanding commitment to racial and economic justice and the LGBTQ community's most vulnerable. www.nclrights.org