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Two Important U.S. Supreme Court Decisions for Religious Employers (and Employers Morally Opposed to Birth Control)

Posted in Discrimination, Labor Law, New Legislation and Regulations

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions yesterday that affect religious employers.

In the first, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court held that the “so-called ministerial exception” applies more broadly, preventing courts from intervening in disputes between schools “with a religious mission” and any “teacher [entrusted] with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith.” The Supreme Court reversed two decisions by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (our federal appellate circuit in California), where the religious employers had won summary judgment in the trial court, only to have those judgments reversed by the Ninth Circuit.

Instead of the Ninth Circuit’s narrow definition, the Supreme Court emphasized the breadth of its prior description of the ministerial exception, which “should apply to any ’employee’ who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” The Court also repeatedly admonished lower courts to be aware that judges are unlikely “to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition” and not to “second-guess” religious employers’ explanation of their employees’ role, which “would risk entanglement in religious issues.”

This decision provides a strong platform for religious employers facing employment discrimination claims, and lower courts (which had already ruled in both of these employers’ favor) will certainly get the message that the ministerial exception should be applied broadly.

In the second decision, Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Court held that two regulations promulgated by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (sometimes called “Obamacare,” but which I will call the “ACA,” for short) were validly enacted. The regulations in question exempted employers with “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “sincerely held moral objections” from complying with other regulations issued under the ACA requiring health insurance plans to provide coverage for all Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods (i.e., birth control).

The states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey sued, alleging the rules violated the ACA and failed to comply with the required procedures for implementing new regulations (like the immigration regulations regarding “Dreamers” that the Supreme Court recently invalidated on procedural grounds). Initially, a federal district court issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting courts from granting employers relief based on the exemptions, which the Third Circuit affirmed, finding the Departments lacked the authority to issue the regulations and had a bad attitude about the notice and comment process. The Supreme Court found the two birth control exemptions were authorized by the ACA and free from procedural defect, reversing the lower courts and upholding the exemptions for employers.